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Latham v National Car Rental Systems, Inc. and Watkins; (COA-PUB, 1/11/2000; RB #2121)


Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket No. 203966; Published   
Judges Gribbs, Murphy, and Griffin; Unanimous; Opinion by Judge Griffin   
Official Michigan Reporter Citation:  239 Mich App 330; Link to Opinion alt    

Not Applicable

Motor Vehicle Code (Civil Liability of Owner) (MCL 257.401)   
Leased / Rented Vehicles    

In this unanimous published Opinion by Judge Griffin, the Court of Appeals held that a nephew of the owner of an automobile was notI within the meaning of the Owner Liability Statute, MCLA 257.401(3), for purposes of establishing liability of the lessor-owner of a motor vehicle involved in an accident, where the nephew was a "drifter" who did not actually reside with the owner, nor was he a member of her household, and had spent the night at her home on only a few prior occasions.

Under the provisions of the Owner Liability Statute, MCLA 257.401(3), a person engaged in the business of leasing motor vehicles for a period of less than 30 days is liable for injuries caused by the negligent operation of the leased motor vehicle, only if the injury occurred while the leased motor vehicle was being operated by an authorized driver under the lease agreement "or by the lessee's spouse, father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter or other immediate family member...."

This third-party personal injury action arose out of a motor vehicle collision that occurred on July S, 1995. The injured minor plaintiffs were passengers in a stolen van that was being driven by a person who could not later be identified. He was only known by his name "D 'Angelo." The plaintiffs were invited to go joyriding with D'Angelo in a stolen van owned by defendant National Car Rental Systems and being leased to defendant Watkins. Pursuant to the rental agreement, Watkins was the only authorized driver of the vehicle. On the night of the accident, the vehicle had been reported stolen 11 days prior. On the night that the vehicle was stolen, defendant Watkins had allowed her nephew, Joe, to stay the night. The following morning, both Joe and the van were missing. Joe later admitted taking the van but claimed that someone else had stolen it from him.

Plaintiffs contended that the van, at the time of the accident, was being driven by "an immediate family member" of lessee Watkins, and therefore, defendant Watkins and defendant National would be liable for the injuries under the Owner Liability Statute.

The Court of Appeals held that defendant Watkins and defendant National were not liable under the Owner Liability Statute because "Joe" was not an immediate family member, and further, because there were insufficient facts to show that "Joe" was indeed the person identified as "D 'Angelo," who was driving the automobile at the time of the accident.

The court held that because Joe was neither residing in Watkins house, nor a member of her household, and was considered by her to be a "drifter" who lives where he can and who only occasionally spent the night at her home, he was not to be considered an "immediate family member" within the meaning of section 401(3) of the Civil Liability Act.

The Court of Appeals relied upon the Supreme Court decision in Rogers v Kuhnreich, 247 Mich 204; 225 NW2d 622 (1929), which interpreted identical language in a predecessor statute. In that case, the Rogers, supra, court held that the term "family" connotes more than merely a relationship based on degrees of consanguinity. The term family entails "a legal or moral obligation on the head of the family to support the other members, and a corresponding state of dependence on the part of the other members for this support."

The Court of Appeals further held that there was insufficient evidence to support plaintiffs contention that "Joe " and "D 'Angelo " were one and the same person. Physical descriptions of "D 'Angelo" by the plaintiffs were inconsistent and did not correspond to physical descriptions of Watkins’nephew.

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

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