Just Riding Along: The Court of Appeals Clarifies When a Passenger’s Claim is Barred When the Vehicle is Uninsured

Just Riding Along: The Court of Appeals Clarifies When a Passenger’s Claim is Barred When the Vehicle is Uninsured

08/31/2023

Introduction

In Tiffany King, et al v MAIPF, et al, the Michigan Court of Appeals considered when a passenger in an uninsured motor vehicle is barred from seeking PIP benefits and making a claim for automobile negligence.  As it turns out, a difference in statutory language means the answer is different for each claim.

Background on King

On March 7, 2020, Emanuel King was driving a Nissan Pathfinder owned by Tiffany King in Ferndale, MI when they were struck by defendant, Mary Page. As a result of the accident, both plaintiffs sustained injuries and applied to the Michigan Auto Insurance Placement Facility (MAIPF) for first-party PIP benefits. MAIPF denied their claims because the application indicated that they were Michigan residents on the date of collision and their vehicle did not have proper no-fault insurance.

Plaintiffs filed suit against their own insurer (Travelers) and MAIPF for PIP benefits and against Page for negligence. Page moved for summary disposition asserting that because plaintiffs were dual residents of Michigan and Georgia, they were required to maintain Michigan no-fault insurance on the vehicle involved in the collision. Page argued that both plaintiffs are barred from bringing a tort action against her because the vehicle did not have a Michigan policy.

MAIPF also requested summary disposition on plaintiffs’ first-party claims, arguing that plaintiffs were required to register and insure their vehicle in Michigan either because 1) they were Michigan residents or 2) because their vehicle was in Michigan for an aggregate of more than 30 days.

Plaintiffs responded to Page’s Motion, arguing that their vehicle didn’t need to be registered in Michigan because they were residents of both Michigan and Georgia. They also argued that Emanuel King didn’t own the Nissan Pathfinder.

The trial court ultimately found that the plaintiffs were residents and domiciled in Michigan, and that they both owned the vehicle involved in the accident. Due to this, the Court granted summary disposition to MAIPF and Page. Plaintiffs filed an appeal.

The Court of Appeals’ Ruling on King

On appeal, plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred when it awarded summary disposition to defendants Page and MAIPF.

With respect to their claim for first-party PIP benefits, plaintiffs argued that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether they were ‘domiciled’ in Michigan or Georgia at the time of collision. Specifically, they relied on MCL 500.3163 which prescribes rules for out-of-state insurers such as Travelers to pay for first-party benefits, but the appeal involved MAIPF, only, as a potential source of first-party benefits.

The Court of Appeals indicated that plaintiffs’ only path to first-party benefits would’ve been 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.

Tiffany King was both the titled owner and registrant, so she was rightfully disqualified from first-party benefits. Although Emanuel King wasn’t technically the “titled owner,” the no-fault act’s definition of “owner” is broadly defined as a person “having the use of a motor vehicle for a period that is greater than 30 days.” Due to this, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s granting of summary disposition in favor of MAIPF on plaintiffs’ claim for first-party benefits.

With respect to the negligence claim, the Court of Appeals cited MCL 500.3135(2), which states that “damages must not be assessed in favor of a party who was operating his or her own vehicle at the time the injury occurred and did not have in effect for that motor vehicle the security required by section 3101(1).” The Court of Appeals specified that the disqualification specifically requires that the party claiming negligence was operating his/her own vehicle at the time the injury occurred.

The Court of Appeals found that since the record reflected that Emmanuel King was operating the vehicle at the time of the incident, and as an owner was properly disqualified.  However, the Court found that that Tiffany King was merely “riding” in the Pathfinder at the time of collision, and not operating it as required by the statute. Specifically, the Court of Appeals held that no Michigan decision has ever held that merely riding as a passenger amounts to “operating” a motor vehicle. So, the disqualification did not apply to Tiffany King. The Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the award of summary disposition to Page as to Tiffany King, only, and remanded King’s claim to the trial court for further proceedings.

Driving Forward

King serves as a good reminder that the owner of a vehicle must maintain no-fault insurance on his/her vehicle even if they’re not solely residing in Michigan. The Court of Appeals also narrowly defined what it means to be the ‘operator’ of a vehicle, essentially eliminating the notion that a passenger would satisfy that definition.  In summary, an owner of an uninsured vehicle is barred from PIP benefits, regardless of whether they are operating the vehicle.  However, an owner of an uninsured vehicle must be operating the vehicle to be disqualified from making a negligence claim.


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