Michigan High Court to Reconsider Auto Accidents Victims’ Right to Sue

August 25, 2009

The Michigan Supreme Court has set the stage for reversing a 2004 precedent that restricts when people injured in auto accidents can sue for pain and suffering.

In a 4-3 order, the court decided to reconsider the case of man whose ankle was broken when a co-worker at a Flint auto plant backed a truck over it. The court had voted 4-3 to deny his appeal last October.

But that was before Democrat Diane Hathaway unseated Republican incumbent Clifford Taylor in the November election, ending conservatives’ control of the court.

Rodney McCormick’s case is a way for justices to take another look at a 2004 state Supreme Court ruling, which critics including medical groups, personal injury lawyers and the AARP say made it too hard to sue.

If people are injured in auto accidents in Michigan, their medical bills and up to three years of lost wages are covered through their personal injury protection insurance — which drivers are required to have.

Lawsuits are allowed for non-economic damages, or pain and suffering, but only when accident victims have been killed, seriously disfigured or seriously impaired.

The Supreme Court will review the legal standard used to determine if someone’s injury is severe enough for pain and suffering awards.

A 1995 state law says the injury must affect a person’s “general ability” to lead a normal life. The high court, in a 2004 case known as Kreiner, ruled the injury must affect the “course and trajectory” of one’s normal life.

That has resulted in 194 of 244 Kreiner-related cases being dismissed by the Michigan Court of Appeals, according to the Coalition Protecting Auto No-Fault.

House Democrats tried changing the precedent with legislation in 2007, but Senate Republicans blocked it.

Defenders of the Kreiner ruling say drivers will pay higher premiums if insurance companies have to pay out more legal fees and damages on behalf of policyholders who are sued frivolously.

Critics say the decision is a “travesty” keeping hundreds of victims from being fairly compensated for long-lasting injuries, some caused by drunken or reckless drivers.

McCormick underwent two surgeries for the broken ankle. His doctor cleared him to go back to work a year after the accident.

He still fishes and golfs, and works for the same pay _ though at a different job duty. He still has some pain but said during a deposition his life is relatively normal.

The trial judge and appeals court ruled the injury did not affect McCormick’s ability to lead his normal life. The dissenting appellate judge said McCormick’s work is a large part of his life, and his employer did not think he could keep doing some job functions.

The judge said doctors found some indication of degenerative joint disease in McCormick’s ankle, which he argued would effect the trajectory of his life.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case between October and May.

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