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Estate of Vawters v. Auto Club Ins. Assoc. (COA – UNP 8/8/2019; RB #3952)

Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 342805; Unpublished
Judges Markey, Fort Hood, and Gadola; Per curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING:
Not Applicable

TOPICAL INDEXING:
Off-Road Recreational Vehicles and All Terrain Vehicles (ORVs and ATVs).


SUMMARY:

In this action for no-fault PIP benefits arising out of a collision between two ATVs, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s motion for summary disposition because a question of fact existed as to whether the defendant’s motor vehicle was involved in the collision.  The operators of the ATVs allegedly lost control of their vehicles as soon as they noticed the defendant’s car pulling out of a driveway in the distance.  Upon seeing the rear end of the vehicle at least partially obstructing the roadway, the ATV operators allegedly applied their brakes and tried to take evasive action, only to lose control and crash into one another.  Despite competing expert testimony about the necessity of the ATV operators’ attempts to take evasive action, the Court of Appeals determined that there was sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to whether the motor vehicle was involved in the collision, as an “actual obstruction that had to be avoided one way or the other.”

Kodi Vawters and Deandre Davis were both driving ATVs in excess of the speed limit when they noticed the defendant, Beryl Anne Fletcher, backing her vehicle out of a driveway and into the street.  Vawters and Davis attempted to brake and take evasive action, but lost control and collided with each other.  Both sustained injuries, and Davis eventually died.  The estates of both Vawters and Davis then filed this action to recover no-fault PIP benefits, arguing that Fletcher’s motor vehicle was involved in the collision and that they were thereby entitled to benefits, and the defendant, Auto Club Insurance Association, moved for summary disposition, arguing that the plaintiffs failed to show that Fletcher’s vehicle was in involved in the collision.  Both the plaintiffs and ACIA presented competing experts to opine on whether the collision resulted from Vawters’ and Davis’ speeding, or from Fletcher’s at least partial obstruction of the roadway.  The experts also opined on whether the ATV riders even needed to take evasive action considering how far away Fletcher’s vehicle was at the time they allegedly noticed her.  There was also testimony from the responding officers, a witness, and Vawters regarding the sequence of events and the distance between Vawters’ and Davis’ ATVs and Fletcher’s vehicle at the time they took evasive action and crashed.  The trial court denied ACIA’s motion for summary disposition, finding that a question of fact existed as to whether Fletcher’s vehicle was involved in the collision.

ACIA’s appeal relied almost exclusively on the Court of Appeals’ prior decision in Detroit Med. Ctr. V. Progressive Mich. Ins. Co., 302 Mich. App. 392 (2013).  The Court distinguished the present case from Detroit Med. Ctr., however, because in that case, “there was no indication that the motor vehicle had crossed or was about to cross into the motorcyclist’s lane of travel.”  In this case, there was an indication that Fletcher was going to cross into Vawters’ and Davis’ lane of travel, and thus a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Fletcher’s motor vehicle was involved in the Vawters’ and Davis’ collision.  There was evidence that Fletcher’s vehicle was obstructing at least part or most of the roadway, and “a reasonable or legitimate inference [existed] . . . that there was an actual need to quickly hit the brakes in light of the movements of Fletcher’s vehicle and her proximity to the ATVs.”  There was also evidence that the ATVs “were only two houses down when Fletcher backed out of [the] driveway.” 

Here, we conclude that a genuine issue of material fact exists regarding whether the injuries and death arose out of the operation and use of Fletcher’s motor vehicle. More particularly, in viewing the documentary evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, we hold that there is a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether there was an actual need for Vawters and Davis to take evasive action by hitting the brakes of their ATVs in response to Fletcher’s vehicle. Although there may be little or no reasonable dispute that “but for” Fletcher’s presence and actions this accident would not have occurred, as pointed out in Detroit Med Ctr, this “but for” conclusion alone does not suffice to establish that the injuries arose out of the operation and use of Fletcher’s Jeep.

There was evidence that Fletcher’s Jeep was in the roadway, either a tad or fully, when Vawters and Davis were heading north on Annott. In the context of the (C)(10) motion, we must proceed on the assumption that Fletcher’s vehicle was completely in the street, or was soon to be, when Vawters and Davis approached from the south. According to ACIA, the great distance between Fletcher’s vehicle and the two ATVs at the moment that Vawters and Davis applied their brakes and collided is the crucial factor in this case. ACIA contends that like the motorcyclist in Detroit Med Ctr, the two men overreacted and could have safely slowed down and braked considering the distance or swung around Fletcher’s Jeep, thereby avoiding the accident. Vawters, however, informed the police in his statement that he and Davis slammed on their brakes upon observing Fletcher’s vehicle backing out of a driveway. A reasonable or legitimate inference arising from this statement is that there was an actual need to quickly hit the brakes in light of the movements of Fletcher’s vehicle and her proximity to the ATVs. Additionally, Bell did testify that the ATVs were only two houses down when Fletcher backed out of Bell’s driveway.

There can be no doubt that the speed at which Vawters and Davis were driving the ATVs affected how Vawters and Davis responded upon seeing Fletcher’s vehicle in the street and their perceiving the immediacy of the danger. But we cannot rule against plaintiffs based on the fact that the two men were exceeding the speed limit or that they were violating city ordinance by operating the ATVs in the street because doing so would improperly inject the issue of fault into the equation in violation of MCL 500.3105(2) (PIP benefits are due “without regard to fault”). Rather, we believe that the proper analysis, and the one which a jury will ultimately have to engage in, entails the question whether there was an actual need for Vawters and Davis to take the action they did under the existing circumstances, including the fact that they were driving 45 to 50 miles per hour on the residential street. Thus, while speed is a consideration in determining “actual need” in analyzing whether the injuries arose out of the operation and use of Fletcher’s vehicle for purposes of MCL 500.3105(1), the violation of the speed limit cannot serve as a basis to reject plaintiffs’ requests for PIP benefits.

We recognize that there was evidence that the ATVs were 280 to 300 feet away from Fletcher’s Jeep when Vawters and Davis braked and attempted to avoid an accident. Perhaps, assuming the accuracy of the distance, ACIA’s expert is correct that Vawters and Davis could have safely braked or slowed down upon seeing Fletcher’s Jeep in the street. But then it becomes an issue regarding how aggressively Vawters and Davis should have employed their braking systems—quick abrupt use of the brakes or a more controlled prolonged use of the brakes. Clearly, the path chosen by Vawters and Davis was such that they lost control of their ATVs, resulting in contact between their two vehicles. Taking into consideration Vawters’s statement, Bell’s deposition testimony, the speed of the ATVs, and the opinion of plaintiffs’ expert, we agree that reasonable minds could differ with respect to whether there was an actual need for Vawters and Davis to aggressively brake as they did.

Detroit Med Ctr is somewhat distinguishable because in that case there was no indication that the motor vehicle had crossed or was about to cross into the motorcyclist’s lane of travel; it appears that the motorcyclist was simply startled by the car’s headlights. The Court found, as a matter of law, that the motorcyclist overreacted to the situation and that there was no actual need to take evasive action. Here, Fletcher’s vehicle was at least partly—perhaps entirely—in the roadway. Therefore, there was evidence that her vehicle was an actual obstruction that had to be avoided one way or the other. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to plaintiffs, as we must, we find that the facts in the instant case are more analogous to those in Bromley and Greater Flint HMO than to those in Detroit Med Ctr. In sum, there is a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Fletcher’s vehicle was actively involved in the accident and whether there was an actual need for Vawters and Davis to respond as they did upon seeing Fletcher’s vehicle. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in denying ACIA’s motion for summary disposition.


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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