Michigan Supreme Court Decision McCormick vs Carrier

Important Lega News
August 2010
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On July 31, 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court released its decision in McCormick v Carrier and set aside the standards which the Supreme Court had previously articulated in Kreiner v Fischer, 471 Mich 109 (2004) regarding the proper interpretation of the “serious impairment of a body function” threshold for non-economic tort liability under MCL 500.3135 of Michigan’s No-Fault Act.  Not unexpectedly, the Supreme Court has liberalized the standards for determining the existence of a “serious impairment of bodily function.” The following is a summary of how the Supreme Court in McCormick modified the controlling standards.

To begin with, the Supreme Court held that, under the unambiguous dictates of the statute, the issue of whether the threshold is satisfied in any given case is a question of law for the Court to determine where there is no material factual dispute regarding the nature and extent of the claimant’s injuries.  On the other hand, if there is a material factual dispute, then the issue is to be resolved by the factfinder (e.g. the jury).

The Supreme Court further held that the unambiguous language of MCL 500.3135(7) provides three prongs that are necessary to establish a “serious impairment of bodily function”: (1) an objectively manifested impairment (observable from actual symptoms or conditions); (2) of an important bodily function which is of value or significance to the injured person; and (3) that affects the claimant’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.  The Court observed that the controlling analysis is inherently fact and circumstance specific and must be conducted on a case by case basis.

Under the first prong, it must be established that the injured person has suffered an objectively manifested impairment of body function.  This requires that the impairment “is commonly understood as one observable or perceivable from actual symptoms or conditions.”  In this regard, the focus is on the proof of the “impairment”, not the “injury or its symptoms.”  The Court further modified the standards set forth in Kreiner by holding that “to the extent that Kreiner could be read to always require medical documentation, it … was wrongly decided”.

The second prong is whether the impaired body function is “important.”  According to McCormick, this requires that the body function has great “value,” “significance,” or “consequence” to the claimant. Necessarily, this prong is an inherently subjective inquiry that must be decided on a case by case basis.  This aspect of the McCormick decision did not modify any of the standards set forth in Kreiner for determining whether the impairment was of an “important” body function.

Thirdly, the Court must determine whether the “impairment affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.”  According to McCormick, this phrase means that the impairment must have an influence on the injured person’s “capacity to live in his or her normal manner of living.”  Again, this requires a subjective, fact base inquiry that must be decided on a case by case basis.  The analysis further requires a comparison of the claimant’s life before and after the incident.  The Court noted however that the disability must only have “affected, not destroyed” the claimant’s life.

In this regard, McCormick held that Kreiner erroneously focused upon the duration of the impairment in its previous analysis of the third prong.  The Supreme Court further held that Kreiner erroneously focused upon whether the injury “affected the person’s general ability to conduct the course or trajectory of his or her entire normal life.”  The McCormick Court held that the focus must instead be upon the extent to which the impairment affected the person’s “ability to live in his or her normal manner of living.”  Significantly, in this regard, the injury need not be permanent to change the course of one’s normal manner of living and the extent to which Kreiner implied otherwise, it was erroneous.  Indeed, under McCormick, the Supreme Court now recognizes that the third prong may be satisfied by “a brief impairment [which] may be devastating whereas a near permanent impairment may have little affect.”

Applying the modified standards to the facts before it, the Supreme Court in McCormick held that the Plaintiff suffered a broken ankle which constituted a serious impairment of body function as a matter of law.  The Plaintiff there underwent two surgeries over a ten month period and required multiple months of physical therapy.  He was unable to return to work as a truck loader for fourteen months and was forced to change positions thereafter. The injury also affected social activities, such as golf and fishing.  Thus, the Court held that the impairment affected the Plaintiff’s general ability to lead his normal life because it  negatively influenced some of his capacity to enjoy his normal, pre-incident manner of living.

The modified standards set forth in McCormick make it easier for a claimant to demonstrate that his or her injuries constitute a serious impairment of bodily function. We expect that more injuries will qualify as a “serious impairment” and the ability of Defendants in these actions to win the grant of summary disposition will be correspondingly more difficult.  The Supreme Court did not address whether the modified standards are to be retroactively applied to pending cases; however, the presumption will undoubtedly be that the decision will indeed receive retroactive application.

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