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Rambin v Allstate, (MSC - PUB; 5/20/2014; RB #3423)

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Michigan Supreme Court
6-1 Opinion (with Cavanagh dissenting in part)
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: 493 Mich 973; Link to Opinion alt


STATUTORY INDEXING:    
Disqualification for Unlawful Taking and Use of a Vehicle [§3113(a)]

TOPICAL INDEXING:      
Not Applicable  


CASE SUMMARY:   
In this 6-1 opinion, the Supreme Court held that MCL 750.414 is not a strict liability offense, and that to be guilty of an unlawful taking under this statute, a person must intend to take or use a vehicle without authority. Based on this holding, the Court instructed that the plaintiff in this case was entitled to present evidence that he did not know that a person who loaned him a motorcycle was not its rightful owner. The Court then concluded based on the record below that a question of fact existed regarding whether the plaintiff took the motorcycle knowingly without authorization.


The Plaintiff in this case was injured in a motorcycle accident involving an uninsured motor vehicle while he was operating a stolen motorcycle. Plaintiff claimed that he did not know that the motorcycle was stolen, and that he was given permission to use it by a person who Plaintiff believed to be the bike’s rightful owner. Following the accident, the plaintiff sought to recover no-fault PIP benefits from defendant Allstate. However, Allstate denied his claim contending that the plaintiff unlawfully took the motorcycle and was therefore disqualified from receiving benefits under MCL 500.3113(b). To establish the unlawful taking of the motorcycle in light of the plaintiff’s contention that he did not know it was stolen, Allstate argued that the Plaintiff violated MCL 750.414, which Allstate argued was a strict liability offense. However, the Supreme Court rejected this argument and held that §414 contains a mens rea requirement, and that to be guilty of this offense, a person must have taken a vehicle knowingly without authorization. In reaching this conclusion, the Court first noted that MCL 750.414 provides:      

Any person who takes or uses without authority any motor vehicle without intent to steal the same, or who is a party to such unauthorized taking or using, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $1,500.00. However, in case of a first offense, the court may reduce the punishment to imprisonment for not more than 3 months or a fine of not more than $500.00. However, this section does not apply to any person or persons employed by the owner of said motor vehicle or anyone else, who, by the nature of his or her employment, has the charge of or the authority to drive said motor vehicle if said motor vehicle is driven or used without the owner’s knowledge or consent.     

The Court then concluded based on the language of the statute, that it was not a strict liability offense. In this regard, the Court reasoned:

Considering MCL 750.414 as a whole, we conclude that it properly requires a showing of knowingly taking without authority or knowingly using without authority. There are several indications within the statute that militate toward the existence of the element of mens rea. The phrase “without authority” along with the terms “take” and “use” all plainly have expansive meanings. “Authority” in this context refers to the “right to control, command or determine.” “Take” means “to get into one’s hands or possession by voluntary action.” “Use” means “to employ for some purpose.” By themselves, these terms all contemplate voluntary and knowing conduct on the part of the accused. For a person to take personal property without the authority of the actual owner, there must be some evidence to support the proposition that the person from whom he or she received the property did not have the right to control or command the property. And the terms “take” and “use” require at the least some voluntary action. Further, if there were no mens rea element respecting the taking or using of a vehicle, the statute could punish otherwise innocent conduct. Accordingly, we conclude that MCL 750.414 is not the exceptional statute that imposes strict liability, but a statute that corresponds with the common-law rule that presumes mens rea as to each element of the offense.

After rendering the foregoing interpretation of §414, the Court went on to instruct that the plaintiff in this case was entitled to present evidence that he did not knowingly lack authority to take the motorcycle. The Court explained:

In this case, plaintiff may present evidence to establish that he did not run afoul of MCL 750.414,and thus did not unlawfully take the motorcycle under MCL 500.3113, because he did not knowingly lack authority to take the motorcycle because he believed that he had authority to do so. Stated differently, plaintiff’s argument that he did not unlawfully take the motorcycle under MCL 500.3113 is subject to the criminal statute that prohibits an unlawful taking, MCL 750.414, under which plaintiff may present evidence to show that he did not knowingly take the motorcycle without the owner’s authority.

The Court then applied the foregoing principles based on a review of the record below and concluded that a question of fact existed regarding whether the Plaintiff in this case unlawfully took the motorcycle in violation of MCL 750.414. In reaching this conclusion, the Court found the following facts significant:

Our review of the lower court record reveals compelling evidence to counter plaintiff’s claim that he was not complicit in the unlawful taking of the motorcycle. The circuit court correctly found a question of material fact regarding whether the motorcycle was taken unlawfully.
 

Plaintiff was in possession of a stolen motorcycle only 18 days after it had been stolen. In the early morning hours of August 23, 2009, plaintiff was riding the stolen motorcycle and travelling on the Davison Freeway with another member of the motorcycle club when a car entered the freeway and instantaneously crossed several lanes to cut in front of plaintiff’s motorcycle. This action caused plaintiff to lay the motorcycle down and collide with the car. Plaintiff sustained serious and substantial injuries yet neither he nor the other member of his motorcycle club called the police or summoned emergency medical care. To the contrary, the two left the motorcycle on the side of the freeway, fled the scene of the accident and drove to the hospital. At the hospital, plaintiff was eventually confronted by police and he fabricated a story that denied his connection to the motorcycle. Specifically, plaintiff told police he was walking across the freeway on his way home from the bar when he was struck and dragged down the freeway by a car.
 

Plaintiff later recanted his story, claiming that he lied to police only to avoid getting a ticket. When plaintiff finally confessed involvement in the accident involving the stolen motorcycle, he told police that it was an Andre “Smith I presume” who had loaned him the motorcycle. Yet, plaintiff had never met Andre before Andre loaned him the motorcycle, did not have Andre’s phone number, did not know where Andre lived, and did not try to contact Andre after the accident. Plaintiff maintains that it is his belief that the motorcycle remains in the police compound. “Possession of the fruits of a robbery plus certain other facts and circumstances permits the inference that the possessor is the thief.” This evidence is more than sufficient for a reasonable fact-finder to conclude plaintiff knew that the motorcycle had been stolen and violated MCL 750.414. The record also reveals, contrary to the claims of plaintiff, that throughout the proceedings Allstate has maintained that plaintiff did not have express or implied authority to take the motorcycle. Early on in the proceedings it became clear that“ Allstate has asserted that [p]laintiff is barred from collecting PIP benefits pursuant to MCL 500.3113 because he was involved in the theft of the motorcycle that was involved in the accident.” Titan relied on Allstate’s assertion to argue “[i]f Allstate prevails with this argument, [p]laintiff is barred from collecting PIP benefits from any carrier which is involved in this litigation.” Further, Allstate’s brief to the Court of Appeals states:“[p]laintiff claims he came into possession of the stolen Honda motorcycle when he went to the clubhouse of Phantom Motorcycle Club (although he did not have a motorcycle)and one of the club members, Andre (presumably the ubiquitous) ‘Smith,’ told him he could use the subject motorcycle that had been stolen from Scott Hertzog.” Allstate further maintained on appeal that if plaintiff “is successful in overturning the trial court ruling, a factual issue still remains as to whether . . . plaintiff had a reasonable belief that he was entitled to take and use the vehicle based on the suspicious unsupported assertions by plaintiff regarding his possession and use of the motorcycle in question.” Accordingly, for all these reasons we disagree with plaintiff and the Court of Appeals that plaintiff’s factual assertions that he did not unlawfully take the motorcycle were undisputed.

In light of the foregoing holdings, the Supreme Court AFFIRMED the part of the Court of Appeal’s decision which held that MCL 750.414 is not a strict liability offense, and REVERSED the part of the Court of Appeal’s decision holding that there was no genuine issue of material fact that the plaintiff was not guilty of violating this statute.  

Justice Cavanagh dissented in part, stating, “For the reasons stated in my dissent in Spectrum Health Hosps v Farm Bureau Mut Ins Co of Mich, 492 Mich 503, 544-545 (2012), I continue to believe that the phrase ‘taken unlawfully’ as used within MCL 500.3113(A), includes only vehicle thefts.”


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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