Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #362651; Unpublished
Judges Markey, Murray, and Feeney; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion
Definition of Owner [§3101(2)(h)]
In this 2-1, unpublished, per curiam decision (Markey, dissenting), the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Plaintiff Spectrum Health Hospitals’ (“Spectrum”) action for no-fault PIP benefits against Defendant Farmers Insurance Exchange (“Farmers”). The Court of Appeals held that a question of fact existed as to whether Spectrum’s patient, Linda Lockett (deceased), was a constructive owner of the uninsured motor vehicle she was operating at the time of the subject one-vehicle accident.
Linda Lockett died as a result a motor vehicle accident that occurred while she was operating an uninsured vehicle titled and registered in her daughter’s name. There were two passengers in the vehicle at the time of the accident—Lasondra Leffler and James Coleman, Lockett’s boyfriend—and Leffler also died as a result of her injuries, leaving Coleman as the only survivor.
Before she died, Lockett received treatment from Spectrum, which later filed an application for PIP benefits on Lockett’s behalf with the Michigan Automobile Insurance Placement Facility (“MAIPF”). The MAIPF assigned the claim to Farmers, but Farmers refused to pay, arguing that Coleman was a constructive owner of her daughter’s vehicle and therefore barred from PIP benefits.
In Spectrum’s resultant lawsuit against Farmers, Coleman was deposed and testified regarding Lockett’s use of the vehicle. He said that he was released from jail six weeks prior to the accident, during which time he lived at an apartment with Lockett. He testified that the vehicle was parked at the apartment for the entire six weeks, that Lockett had a set of keys to the vehicle, that he “thought” Lockett paid for the vehicle and put gas in it—although he was not sure and never actually saw her put gas in it—and that he “believed” Lockett could use the vehicle whenever she wanted and needed to—although he only saw her drive it a few times and was not actually certain that she did not need to ask permission to use it. Based on this testimony, the trial court ultimately granted summary disposition in Farmers’ favor, reasoning that ‘[a]thought Coleman’s testimony contains some uncertainties regarding his knowledge of Lockett’s use of the vehicle, the overall picture he presents strongly suggests it comported with the concepts of ownership.’
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary disposition order in favor of Farmers, holding that a question of fact existed as to whether Lockett was a constructive owner based on Coleman’s testimony, and that the trial court erred in not viewing Coleman’s testimony in the light most favorable to Spectrum. The Court noted that Coleman prefaced or caveated almost all of the relevant responses during his deposition with phrases such as, ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I think,’ ‘I believe,’ ‘I would believe so, ‘I wouldn’t know, but it would be my guess,’ ‘I don’t know what’s going during the day,’ and ‘maybe.’ The Court also noted that the “only clear factual indications made by Coleman were that the vehicle was regularly parked at Lockett’s apartment, that she had keys to the vehicle, and that [she] used the vehicle at least a few times during the month leading up to the accident.” In other words, Coleman’s testimony offered a definitive answer as to only two of the eight factors set forth in Michigan caselaw for determining constructive ownership:
1. Whether the individual used the vehicle on a regular or sporadic/spotty basis. Chop, 244 Mich at 681; Detroit Med Ctr v Titan Ins Co, 284 Mich App 490, 493-494; 775 NW2d 151 (2009); Ardt, 233 Mich App at 691.
2. Whether the individual took possession of the vehicle pursuant to a purchase, lease, or other agreement, and the nature of that agreement. Twichel, 469 Mich at 531.
3. Whether the individual had to ask permission to use the vehicle. Detroit Med Ctr, 284 Mich App at 493-494.
4. Whether the individual subjectively believed the vehicle to be her own. Chop, 244 Mich App at 681-682.
5. Whether the individual was responsible for repairs and maintenance or for putting gasoline in the vehicle. Kessel v Rahn, 244 Mich App 353, 357-358; 624 NW2d 220 (2001).
6. Whether the individual’s use of the vehicle was exclusive or shared. Id. at 357.
7. Where the vehicle was regularly parked. Chop, 244 Mich App at 681.
8. Whether the individual had her own set of keys to the vehicle. Iqbal v Bristol West Ins Group, 278 Mich App 31, 34; 748 NW2d 574 (2008).
Absent more—such as definitive statements about how Lockett got the vehicle and whether she had to ask permission to use it—the Court held that a reasonable juror could conclude that Lockett was not a constructive owner of the vehicle. And notably, the Court concluded its analysis with the following quote from Botsford Gen Hosp v Citizens Ins Co, 195 Mich App 127 (1992): ‘The question of ownership is one of fact that is to be decided by the factfinder.’
“Indeed, Coleman’s inconsistencies and speculations were readily apparent in his testimony. Many of Coleman’s responses included statements such as: ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I think,’ ‘I believe,’ ‘I would believe so,’ ‘I wouldn’t know, but it would be my guess,’ ‘I don’t know what’s going on during the day,’ and ‘maybe.’ The only clear factual indications made by Coleman were that the vehicle was regularly parked at Lockett’s apartment, that she had keys to the vehicle, and that Lockett used the vehicle at least a few times during the month leading up to the accident. The trial court overlooked many of the testimonial uncertainties to determine that Coleman’s testimony was a clear indication of constructive ownership. A trial court is not permitted to make credibility determinations . . .
Under the eight factors that are considered in evaluating constructive ownership under MCL 500.3113(b), Coleman’s testimony was definitive on two factors: the vehicle was regularly parked at Lockett’s apartment and Lockett had her own set of keys. Even though he resided with her for 6 weeks prior to the accident, Coleman saw her use the vehicle a few times in total but said she could use it whenever she wanted. The trial court found these facts to indicate regular versus spotty use as a third factor supporting constructive ownership. The other five factors are not dispositive in defendant’s favor and create a genuine issue of material fact, however. For example, Coleman did not know how she got the Dodge Nitro, whether she had to ask permission to use it, or whether Lockett (not Coleman) ‘subjectively believed the vehicle to be her own,’ Chop, 244 Mich App at 681-682. Coleman did not know if Lockett let anyone else drive the vehicle. He also testified he was ‘sure’ that Lockett paid to put gas in the vehicle but also testified he never saw her put gas in the vehicle and had no idea if she paid for car repairs. . . .
The evidence is not so definitive that a reasonable juror would be compelled to find for or against Lockett as the owner, meaning that there are genuine issues of material fact. . . . This Court has concluded that a genuine issue of material fact exists when some testimony supported regular use of a vehicle but other testimony suggested the plaintiff only used the vehicle a few times. See Ardt, 233 Mich App at 689-691. Likewise, whether Lockett had constructive ownership of the vehicle remained an open question of material fact based upon Coleman’s inconsistent testimony. ‘The question of ownership is one of fact that is to be decided by the factfinder.’ Botsford Gen Hosp v Citizens Ins Co, 195 Mich App 127, 133; 489 NW2d 137 (1992).
Judge Markey dissented, arguing that, based on Coleman’s uncontroverted testimony, “reasonable jurors would agree that Lockett constructively owned the car.”