Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #359064; Published
Judges Yates, Jansen, and Servitto; Authored by Judge Yates
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Forthcoming; Link to Opinion
Disqualification for Uninsured Owners or Registrants of Involved Motor Vehicles or Motorcycles [§3113(b)]
Disqualification for Uninsured Owners/Operators for Noneconomic Loss [§3135(2)]
In this unanimous, published decision authored by Judge Yates, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Plaintiffs Tiffany Lachell King’s and Emanuel King, III’s claims for no-fault PIP benefits against Defendant Michigan Automobile Insurance Placement Facility (“MAIPF”), as well as Emanuel King’s auto negligence action against Defendant Mary Ann Page. The Court of Appeals then reversed that portion of the trial court’s order dismissing Tiffany King’s auto negligence action against Page. With respect to the Kings’ claims against the MAIPF, the Court of Appeals held that both Tiffany and Emanuel were barred from recovering PIP benefits relative to the subject accident by MCL 500.3113(b). Both were Michigan residents at the time of the accident, and both were “owners” the vehicle involved, however, neither had in effect the security required by sections 3101 or 3103 of the No-Fault Act at the time of the accident. With respect to Emanuel King’s claim against Page, the Court of Appeals held that King was barred from recovery in tort by MCL 500.3135(2)(c), because he constructively owned and was operating an uninsured vehicle involved in the accident. With respect to Tiffany King’s claim against Page, the Court held that she was so barred because she was merely a passenger in the uninsured vehicle at the time of the accident.
Emanuel King, III and Tiffany Lachell King were both injured in a car accident caused by Mary Ann Page. The vehicle the Kings were traveling in at the time of the accident was titled and registered in Tiffany’s name but was being driven by Emanuel. The Kings were dual residents of both Georgia and Michigan, but the vehicle was insured under a Georgia automobile policy which did not provide for Michigan No-Fault insurance. After the accident, the Kings filed claims for PIP benefits with the MAIPF, but the MAIPF denied their claims on the basis that the Kings were Michigan residents who failed to maintain No-Fault insurance at the time of the accident. The Kings proceeded to file suit against the MAIPF and included auto negligence claims against Page, and the MAIPF and Page both moved for summary disposition, arguing that the Kings’ claims were barred by MCLs 500.3113(b) and 500.3135(2)(c), respectively. The trial court agreed, granting summary disposition for the defendants on all claims.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order in favor of the MAIPF, holding that both Emanuel and Tiffany King were barred from PIP benefits by MCL 500.3113(b). The police report and the Kings’ application for PIP benefits both listed Michigan as the place in which they lived, and while the vehicle was titled in Tiffany’s name, Emanuel King was a constructive owner because he had use of the vehicle for more than 30 days. Thus, both qualified as the “owner[s] or registrant[s] of a motor vehicle or motorcycle involved in the accident with respect to which the security required by section 3101 or 3103 was not in effect,” and both, therefore, were barred from PIP benefits.
“Plaintiffs’ only potential path to first-party benefits runs through the disqualification clause in MCL 500.3113(b), which limits disqualification from first-party benefits to Michigan residents who can be described as ‘the owner or registrant of a motor vehicle involved in the accident’ that lacks no-fault insurance. The record demonstrates that Tiffany King was both the title owner and the registrant of the Pathfinder, so she is necessarily disqualified from first-party benefits pursuant to MCL 500.3113(b). But Emanuel King was not the title owner or the registrant of the Pathfinder, so he might have a theory that the disqualification prescribed by MCL 500.3113(b) does not apply to him. Unfortunately for him, though, the no-fault act broadly defines an ‘owner’ of a vehicle as a person ‘having the use of a motor vehicle, under a lease or otherwise, for a period that is greater than 30 days.’ See MCL 500.3101(3)(l)(i). That capacious definition includes Emanuel King, who had use of the Pathfinder for more than 30 days. See Twichel v MIC Gen Ins Corp, 469 Mich 524, 530; 676 NW2d 616 (2004) (‘[I]t is not necessary that a person actually have used the vehicle for a thirty-day period before a finding may be made that the person is the owner. Rather, the focus must be on the nature of the person’s right to use the vehicle.’).”
Next, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition dismissing Emanuel King’s auto negligence claim against Page, holding that said claim was barred by MCL 500.3135(2)(c). King was a constructive owner of the vehicle he and Tiffany were traveling in at the time of the accident, as well as its driver. Thus, “damages [could] not be assessed in his favor” because he qualified as a “a party who was operating his or her own vehicle at the time the injury occurred [who] did not have in effect for that motor vehicle the security required by section 3101(1).”
“The record establishes that Emanuel King was driving the Pathfinder when Page struck the vehicle with her Ford Focus. Thus, Emanuel King is disqualified under MCL 500.3135(2)(c) from seeking damages from Page because he was ‘operating’ the Pathfinder when the injury occurred.”
Lastly, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Tiffany King’s auto negligence claim against Page, because Tiffany was not “operating her own vehicle at the time the injury occurred.” She was a passenger, and thus not barred from recovering damages in tort by either MCL 500.3135(2)(c) or any other provision of the No-Fault Act.
“In contrast, Tiffany King was merely riding in the Pathfinder at the time of the collision. It would defy common sense to say that she was “operating” the Pathfinder simply by riding in the vehicle. Indeed, our Supreme Court and this Court have consistently treated the concept of ‘operating’ as synonymous with driving a vehicle. E.g., Cole v Barber, 353 Mich 427, 431; 91 NW2d 848 (1958) (‘a driver shall not operate his vehicle so fast that he cannot bring it to a complete stop’); Farm Bureau Gen Ins Co of Mich v Riddering, 172 Mich App 696, 703; 432 NW2d 404 (1988) (‘While [defendant] did exercise some control over the vehicle by grabbing the steering wheel, steering is only part of operating a vehicle. Operation [of a motor vehicle] necessarily includes the additional functions of controlling the gas and brake pedals and all other components necessary to make a vehicle run.’). The most expansive interpretation of ‘operating’ a vehicle came from our Supreme Court in a criminal case where the Court ruled that a defendant ‘operated’ a vehicle by ‘grabbing the steering wheel and thereby causing the car to veer off the road[.]’ People v Yamat, 475 Mich 49, 57; 714 NW2d 335 (2006). But as far as we can tell, no Michigan decision has ever held that merely riding along as a passenger in a car amounts to ‘operating’ a motor vehicle. Therefore, we conclude that Tiffany King was not ‘operating’ a vehicle when she was riding in the Pathfinder at the time her injury occurred, so the disqualification prescribed by MCL 500.3135(2)(c) does not apply to her. Thus, the trial court erred in awarding summary disposition to Page on Tiffany King’s negligence claim set forth in Count Five of the complaint. Accordingly, we must reverse the award of summary disposition to Page and remand Tiffany King’s negligence claim for consideration on the merits.”