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Keusch v Farm Bureau Ins Co; (COA-UNP, 8/30/11; RB #3198a)

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Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket No. 297642; Unpublished
Judges Whitbeck, Markey, and K. F. Kelly; Unanimous, Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation:  Not applicable; Link to Opinion  


STATUTORY INDEXING: 
Entitlement to PIP Benefits: Arising Out of / Causation Requirement [§3105(1)] 
Survivor’s Loss Benefits: General/Miscellaneous [§ 3108(1)]

TOPICAL INDEXING: 
Not applicable 


 

CASE SUMMARY:   
In this unpublished per curiam opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of summary disposition to Farm Bureau Insurance Company on the issue of whether Farm Bureau was liable to the plaintiff for survivor’s loss benefits under MCL 500.3108.  However, the Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the judgment the trial court entered in favor of plaintiff following a bench trial, in which the central issue in dispute was whether there was a sufficient causal connection between the subject motor vehicle accident and the decedent’s death.  The Court of Appeals ultimately held that the record in the case was insufficient for the trial court to conclude that the decedent’s death arose out of the motor vehicle accident.

In early January 2005, the decedent sustained neck injuries when unloading a large window from a truck.  Notably, the decedent had sustained previous neck injuries prior to the 2005 accident.  Leading up to the 2005 accident, the decedent was treating with his primary care physician for several issues, including his chronic neck pain.  Prior to the 2005 accident, plaintiff was prescribed various medications, including narcotic pain medication.  However, after the 2005 accident, the decedent’s physician prescribed more powerful narcotic pain medication, including Fentanyl.

In February 2005, on behalf of decedent, a claim was submitted to Farm Bureau for no-fault insurance benefits with respect to the neck injuries the decedent sustained.  Approximately a month later, on the morning of March 17, 2005, the decedent’s wife left home for a short while and returned to find the decedent lying dead in his bed.  The autopsy report revealed that the decedent’s body contained various drugs, including cocaine and Fentanyl at the time of his death.  The pathologist who performed the autopsy concluded that the cause of decedent’s death was a mixed drug overdose because he could not decipher which particular drug (cocaine or Fentanyl) killed the decedent.  However, the pathologist also opined that the cocaine found in the decedent “could be sufficient” to cause the decedent’s death, even if the decedent had not used Fentanyl.  The decedent’s primary care physician opined that the drugs he prescribed to the decedent would not have caused the decedent’s death if the decedent had taken them as prescribed.  However, the primary care physician further opined that the 2005 accident was the “triggering event” for the stronger medication that he prescribed to the decedent, the decedent’s desire for medication, and the decedent’s self-medicating.

The decedent’s estate ultimately filed a lawsuit against Farm Bureau on the basis that Farm Bureau was wrongfully denying payment of survivor’s loss benefits under MCL 500.3108.  Prior to having a bench trial on whether Farm Bureau was responsible for the survivor’s loss benefits, the trial court denied Farm Bureau’s motion for summary disposition in which Farm Bureau argued it was not responsible for the survivor’s loss benefits, because the decedent’s death was the product of the decedent’s voluntary use of controlled substances in excessive quantities and, therefore, the decedent’s death was not accidental and was proximately caused by his own wrongful conduct.  In denying the motion, the trial court reasoned that there were disputed issues of fact regarding whether the decedent’s death was the product of his voluntary consumption of controlled substances or whether his death was sufficiently connected to the injuries the plaintiff sustained in the accident. 

After the trial court denied Farm Bureau’s motion for summary disposition, a bench trial took place in which the court heard testimony from the pathologist who performed the autopsy and the decedent’s primary care physician.  The trial resulted in the court issuing an opinion and order which granted judgment in favor of plaintiff.  The court’s opinion relied upon former Chief Justice Kelly’s concurring opinion in Scott v State Farm Mut Ins Co, 483 Mich 1032 (2009), in which Justice Kelly stated that, regarding the causal connection that is required for the payment of no-fault benefits, “evidence establishing almost any causal connection will suffice when it is more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for.”  Based on this standard, the trial court concluded that the required causal relationship between the decedent’s accident and death had been established through the testimony of the pathologist and the decedent’s primary care physician.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals first addressed the trial court’s denial of summary disposition to Farm Bureau on the basis of the wrongful-conduct rule.  The court cited the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Orzel v Scott Drug Co, 449 Mich 550 (1995), for the proposition that under the wrongful-conduct rule, “a person cannot maintain an action if, in order to establish his cause of action, he must rely, in whole or in part, on an illegal or immoral act or transaction to which he is a party.”  In applying this standard to this case, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that reasonable minds could differ regarding whether the cocaine usage was a proximate cause of the decedent’s death.  The court noted that the decedent’s Fentanyl level was within legal range and if the Fentanyl alone caused the decedent’s death, the wrongful-conduct rule would not preclude the plaintiff’s claim. 

The Court of Appeals then addressed the trial court’s opinion and order granting judgment in favor of plaintiff.  The court rejected Farm Bureau’s argument that the trial court erred when it relied on Justice Kelly’s concurring opinion in Scott.  In this regard, the court noted that while the concurring opinion is not binding authority, “the portion of the opinion upon which the trial court relied correctly stated the legal test for causation applicable in the present case.”

Despite disagreeing with Farm Bureau on the applicable causation standard, the Court of Appeals agreed with Farm Bureau that the plaintiff failed to establish causation at trial under the causation standard set forth in Justice Kelly’s opinion in Scott.  The Court of Appeals noted that there was compelling evidence that the decedent would have died from the other drugs in his system, regardless of whether he was prescribed Fentanyl for his injuries.  The court ultimately concluded that the causal relationship between the decedent’s accident and his death was speculative at best.  In this regard, the court specifically stated:

“The requirement that the Fentanyl was a cause of the decedent’s death was a threshold requirement for Keusch to establish causation on the particular facts of this case.  And such a finding in this record is speculative at best.  The record in this case was insufficient for the trial court to conclude that the decedent’s death arose out of the automobile accident.  Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court clearly erred in finding that the record established the required causal relationship between the decedent’s accident and his death.”


Lansing car accident lawyer Stephen Sinas is the lead editor of the appellate case summaries published on this site regarding the Michigan auto insurance law. To learn more about how Stephen Sinas and how the Sinas Dramis Law Firm can help you if you have been injured in a Michigan auto accident, visit SinasDramis.com.

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