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Barnes v. 21st Century Premier Insurance Company (COA – PUB 11/5/2020; RB #4175)

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 Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket # 347120; Published
Judges Boonstra, Markey, and Hood; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING:
Determination of Domicile [§3114(1)]

TOPICAL INDEXING:
Not Applicable


SUMMARY:
In this unanimous published per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of defendant 21st Century Premier Insurance Company’s (CPIC) motion for summary disposition, in which it argued that the plaintiff, Curtis Barnes, was not entitled to no-fault PIP benefits under his grandparents’ policy because he was not domiciled with his grandparents at the time of the subject motor vehicle collision.  The Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err by denying CPIC’s motion for summary disposition because a question of fact existed as to whether Barnes was domiciled with his grandparents at the time of the collision, despite the fact that they lived in separate “units” of the same house.

Barnes was injured in a motor vehicle collision and subsequently sought no-fault PIP benefits under his grandparents’ policy with CPIC.  CPIC denied his claim, contending that Barnes lived in a different unit in the same house as his grandparents, and was therefore not “domiciled” with them for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1).  CPIC noted that the separate units had their own entrances and living areas, that the units were separated by an interior door with deadbolt, that Barnes had everything he needed in his unit, that Barnes paid his own gas and electric bills and half of the mortgage and water bills, and that on Barnes’s grandfather’s application for insurance, he did not list Barnes as a “household member.”  Barnes argues, conversely, that only family members had lived in the house for nearly 50 years, that the interior doors of the house were never locked, and that both he and his grandparents regularly entered each other’s units without having to ask permission.  Furthermore, they shared a mailbox and an address, performed various chores in both units, and ate their meals together.  CPIC moved for summary disposition in Barnes’s first-party action to recover no-fault PIP benefits, but he trial court denied its motion, ruling that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Barnes was domiciled with his grandparents at the time of the collision.  The jury then rendered a special verdict, “finding that Barnes was domiciled in the same household as his grandparents when the accident occurred.”

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of CPIC’s motion for summary disposition, relying not necessarily on “the physical structure or design of the house,” but rather on “the conduct and behaviors of the people living in the house in the context of that specific structure or design.”  The Court of Appeals held that in certain circumstances, separate units in the same house could be considered separate households, but that in this case, the evidence suggested that Barnes and his grandparents were effectively “‘living together’ as a family unit in the same household.”

We hold that the trial court did not err by denying CPIC’s motions for summary disposition. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Barnes and the intervening plaintiffs, we agree the evidence supported a conclusion that Barnes and his grandparents formed one family unit living together under the same roof. The house has been used as a family residence and domicile for nearly 50 years; only family members have lived in the home. In our view, the key in this particular case is not the physical structure or design of the house, in and of itself, but rather the conduct and behaviors of the people living in the house in the context of that specific structure or design. Of course, the fact that the upstairs unit can stand alone as a fully functional home— having bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen—is a relevant consideration, as is the fact that the upstairs unit has its own furnace, hot water heater, gas and electric meters, thermostat, and doorbell. The evidence, however, also revealed that interior doors were not locked, including the door between the upper and lower units, that Barnes regularly went into the downstairs unit for various purposes absent the need for permission, that the grandparents had free and unconstrained access to the upstairs unit, which was exercised on occasion, and that Barnes pitched in financially at times by helping cover costs associated with the whole house and not just the upstairs unit. If the evidence had conclusively established that the connecting door between the two units was always locked, that Barnes never accessed the lower unit, nor had the liberty to do so, that his grandparents never accessed the upper unit, nor had the freedom to do so, and that costs were never shared, we would conclude that Barnes and his grandparents were not “living together” as a family unit in the same household and were instead, effectively, living separately in two distinct households. But that was simply not the situation presented in this case—it was just the opposite. Indeed, we believe that the trial court could have properly entered summary judgment in favor of Barnes and the intervening plaintiffs.

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