Kreiner v Fischer: Causing Problems that Weren’t There Before
In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court interpreted the Legislature’s 1995 statutory definition of “serious impairment of body function” relating to the No-Fault Act. Kreiner v Fischer significantly departed from the unambiguous language of the statute by imposing extra burdens that twisted it into a confusing and vague test. Primarily, the Kreiner decision led to inconsistent interpretation of the statutory language, with similarly situated plaintiffs being treated differently by different courts.
Further, some courts have interpreted Kreiner to create a threshold that is higher than that intended by the statutory language of the No-Fault Act. Primarily, the Kreiner majority’s interpretation of the statute effectively created a permanency requirement for injuries that was not there before.
After Kreiner, it became very difficult for a person injured in an accident to establish that they had a serious impairment of body function, unless that injury was one that would never heal. Even if the injury was bad enough that you could never return to doing some of the things you enjoyed before your accident, a doctor could still claim that your injuries were healed enough to no longer be a serious impairment and you would have no way to recover for tort liability.
Overall, it became much harder for a person to claim that they had a serious impairment of body function as a result of Kreiner, and that was never the intention of the Legislature.
McCormick Fixes the Confusion Created by Kreiner
In July of 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court revisited the proper interpretation of the “serious impairment of body function” threshold for non-economic tort liability. In McCormick v Carrier, the Court overturned the Kreiner decision and ruled that it was wrongly decided because it departed from the plain language of the statute.
The threshold requirements in the statute have remained unchanged in all key aspects since the act was adopted, and currently provide that “[a] person remains subject to tort liability for noneconomic loss caused by his or her ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle only if the injured person has suffered death, serious impairment of body function, or permanent disfigurement.”
The statute does not create a specific time requirement as to how long an impairment must last in order to have an effect on “the person’s general ability to live his or her normal life.” While the Legislature required that a “serious disfigurement” be “permanent,” it did not impose the same restriction on a “serious impairment of body function.”
In other words, Kreiner altered the balance from that intended by the Legislature by imposing extra burdens that don’t appear in the statute for meeting the threshold of a “serious impairment of body function.” As discussed further below, much of the Court’s rationale was based on the fact that serious impairment analysis has to be a fact and circumstance specific and must be connected on a case-by-case basis.
The Court recognized that there is no hard and fast rule as to what meets the threshold of a “serious impairment of body function,” because the Legislature recognized what may be important to one is not important to all.
What Does All Of This Mean For Me?
Imagine that you were in an auto accident and you injured your knee. Doctors completely restrict you from putting weight on your leg and as a result you can’t go to work or do any of your favorite hobbies. After over a year of physical therapy and two surgeries, you were finally cleared to go back to work and you are excited to get back to doing the things you enjoy, but doctors warn you that your knee may never feel the same again. After your first day back at work you realize that your injuries prevent you from doing your job to the best of your ability, and your performance is going to suffer. Your boss notices too, and offers to move you to a different position where you can be off your feet without taking any form of pay cut. Reluctantly you accept, because you know it’s in the best interests of your company, but after a month you realize that you just don’t get the same enjoyment out of your job.
Under the Kreiner holding, the insurance company could argue that your injuries do not affect your ability to lead your normal life because you are able to care for yourself, still do your hobbies, and work for the same rate of pay. Even though your injuries seriously impair your ability to do your old job effectively, you would not be able to sue for your emotional pain and loss of enjoyment.
Under the McCormick holding, the above would not be true. The Court most likely would find that you have shown an impairment of your body that is important to you, and it influenced some of your capacity to live in your normal, pre-incident manner of living. Your job was a central part of your pre-incident “normal life,” and you should not be forced to live with a lower quality of life without just compensation.
It’s about making sure that you are taken care of, not just financially but also for the other ways you may be affected by your accident.
For the Lawyers: A Legal Analysis of McCormick
In March of 2006, Plaintiff Rodney McCormick filed suit against Defendant Allied Automotive Group, seeking recovery for non-economic losses under the No-Fault Act stemming from injuries suffered while working as a medium truck loader at a General Motors plant. There was no dispute that Plaintiff suffered a broken ankle, was completely restricted from putting weight on his ankle for a month, and underwent two surgeries over a 10-month period and multiple months of physical therapy. 19 months after he suffered his injury, Plaintiff’s medical records indicated that he was clear to return to work without restriction, but still noted “occasional aching” and tightness in his ankle.
Subsequently, Allied Automotive moved for summary disposition, arguing that Plaintiff had recovered relatively well and could not meet the serious impairment threshold provided in MCL 500.3135(1). The Court of Appeals affirmed the Genesee County Circuit Court’s decision to grant the motion, holding that, under Kreiner v Fischer, 471 Mich. 109, 683 n.W.2d 611 (2004), plaintiff’s impairment did not affect his ability to lead his normal life.
In his appeal, Plaintiff argued that his normal life before the incident mostly consisted of working 60 hours a week as a medium-duty truck loader, and that he was also a “weekend golfer” who also frequently fished in the spring and summer. Moreover, Plaintiff also argued that his range of motion in his ankle was still not within normal limits and his employer had determined that he could no longer perform his work duties and transferred him voluntarily to another position.
The Holding: Kreiner majority’s interpretation of MCL 500.3135 departed from the statute’s clear and unambiguous text
The Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision – agreeing with Plaintiff – holding that he showed that the impairment influenced some of his capacity to live in his normal, pre-incident manner of living; specifically, that his capacity to work, the central part of his pre-incident “normal life,” was affected. Moreover, the Court overturned Kreiner because the majority’s interpretation of MCL 500.3135 departed from the statute’s clear and unambiguous text. The Supreme Court focused on the legislative intent expressed by the plain language of the statute and how the lower courts’ application of Kreiner has led to inconsistent interpretations; primarily by created a permanency requirement not found in MCL 500.3135.
The Michigan Supreme Court found that the plain text of the statute demonstrated that the common understanding of “[to] affect the person’s ability to lead his or her normal life” is to have an influence on some of the person’s capacity to live in his or her normal manner of living. By modifying “normal life” with “his or her,” it makes the serious impairment analysis inherently fact- and circumstance-specific and must be conducted on a case-by-case basis. In contrast, Kreiner altered the balance from that intended by the Legislature by imposing extra-textual burdens to meeting the threshold for recovery under MCL 500.3135.
New Legislative Test from McCormick
Judge Cavanagh outlined the proper interpretation of the clear and unambiguous language in MCL 500.3135, creating the following test. To begin with, the court should determine whether there is a factual dispute regarding the nature and the extent of the person’s injuries, and if so, whether the dispute is material to determining whether the serious impairment of body function threshold is met. MCL 500.3135(2)(a)(i) and (ii). If there is no factual dispute or no material factual dispute, then whether the threshold is met is a question of law for the court. Id.
When determining whether the serious impairment threshold has been crossed the unambiguous language of MCL 500.3135(7) provides three prongs that are necessary to establish a “serious impairment of body function.” There must be “(1) an objectively manifested impairment (observable or percievable from actual symptoms or conditions) (2) of an important body function (a body function of value, significance, or consequence to the injured person) that (3) affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life (influences some of the plaintiff’s capacity to live in his or her normal manner of living.)”
Avoiding “Drawing Lines in the Sand”
Finally, Judge Cavanagh foresaw the problems with the decision in Kreiner long before anyone else, stating in his dissent in that case, “[t]he Legislature recognized that what is important to one is not important to all[;] a brief impairment may be devastating whereas a near permanent impairment may have little effect.” Kreiner, 471 Mich. at 145, 683 N.W.2d 611 (CAVANAGH, J. dissenting). As such the analysis of MCL 500.3135 does not “lend itself to any bright-line rule or imposition of [a] non-exhaustive list of factors,” particularly where there is no basis in the statute for such facts. Id. Accordingly, because “[t]he Legislature avoided drawing lines in the sand . . . so must we.” Id.