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Wasik v Auto Club Ins Assoc, et al (COA – PUB 6/2/2022; RB #4421)

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Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #355848; Published
Judges Rick, Murray, and Shapiro; Authored
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Forthcoming; Link to Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING:
Not Applicable

TOPICAL INDEXING:
Interpretation of Insurance Contracts
Uninsured Motorist Coverage in General


SUMMARY:
In this unanimous, published decision authored by Judge Murray, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Plaintiff Griffin Wasik’s action for uninsured motorist (UM) benefits against Defendants Auto Club Insurance Association (“Auto Club”) and Progressive Marathon Insurance Company (“Progressive”). The Court of Appeals held that the phrase ‘hit-and-run vehicle’—found in both policies—did not include a Ford Explorer whose driver initially stopped after crashing into the vehicle Wasik was traveling in, but then left the scene after the drivers of each vehicle agreed that there was no need to contact the police. In so holding, the Court of Appeals defined the term ‘hit-and-run vehicle’ in both policies to mean “a vehicle that hits another vehicle and the driver leaves the scene of the accident—either without stopping or at any time before an exchange of information can take place.”

Griffin Wasik was traveling as a passenger in a vehicle driven by his girlfriend, Anna Mayer, when they were rear-ended by a Ford Explorer. Both Mayer and the driver of the Ford Explorer drove to the nearest parking lot, where they exited their vehicles and inspected the damage. After determining there was no damage to Mayer’s vehicle, the two drivers mutually agreed that there was no need to contact the police, and thus the driver of the Ford Explorer left the scene without providing Mayer with his contact information.

Once Mayer and Wasik arrived at Wasik’s house, Wasik began complaining of injuries, and Mayer drove him to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a concussion. Wasik proceeded to file a claim for UM benefits related to his injuries with Progressive—under his mother’s automobile insurance policy—and Auto Club—under Mayer’s automobile insurance policy. Both the Progressive and Auto Club policies provided for UM coverage where injury occurred as a result of a collision with a hit-and-run vehicle, but Progressive and Auto Club argued that the Ford Explorer did not qualify as a ‘hit-and-run vehicle’ under either policy. The relevant definition of ‘uninsured motor vehicle’ under the Progressive policy was ‘a land motor vehicle or trailer of any type . . . that is a hit-and-run vehicle whose owner or operator cannot be identified and which strikes . . . a vehicle that you, a relative, or a rated resident are occupying[.]’ The relevant definition of ‘uninsured motor vehicle’ under the Auto Club policy was ‘a hit-and-run vehicle of which the operator and owner are unknown and which makes direct physical contact with . . . a motor vehicle which an insured person is occupying[.]’ In Wasik’s subsequent third-party auto negligence action for UM benefits against Progressive and Auto Club, both insurers moved for summary disposition. Ultimately, the trial court found that the Ford Explorer did not qualify as a ‘hit-and-run vehicle’ under either policy’s definition, granting summary disposition for the insurers.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition orders, noting, preliminarily, that “[b]ecause the phrase ‘hit and run’ is undefined, we must determine its plain and ordinary meaning.” The Court observed that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defined ‘hit-and-run’ as ‘being or involving a motor-vehicle who does not stop after being involved in an accident.’ Combining this definition with the additional requirements in each policy that the driver of a hit-and-run vehicle either be unknown or unidentifiable, the Court defined the term in both policies to mean “a vehicle that hits another vehicle and the driver leaves the scene of the accident—either without stopping or at any time before an exchange of information can take place.” In this case, therefore, the Ford Explorer did not qualify as a ‘hit-and-run vehicle’ because Mayer had an opportunity to exchange information with its driver.

“Although these decisions are informative, our decision is anchored in the words of these contracts. In applying the common understanding of this phrase, we do not read ‘hit and run vehicle’ to exclusively mean, as defendants argue, a vehicle that hits another vehicle and does not stop at the scene of the accident, and thus is unidentified. Instead, we hold that under these contracts, ‘hit and run vehicle’ means a vehicle that hits another vehicle and the driver leaves the scene of the accident—either without stopping or at any time before an exchange of information can take place. This reading comports with the plain meaning of the phrase ‘hit and run’ and enforces the common understanding of that phrase. Importantly, it also takes into consideration the remaining sentence of each policy, i.e., that the driver either be ‘unknown’ or ‘cannot be identified,’ as each policy requires in some form that the driver be unidentified. The requirement that the driver be unidentified for the policy to apply means to us that the ‘run’ has to occur before the opportunity to exchange information can take place. And that type of “run” occurs if a vehicle flees without stopping, or if the vehicle stops but leaves before there is an opportunity to exchange information.

Working with this definition and considering the undisputed facts, we readily concludethat plaintiff was not hit by a hit and run vehicle, as itis undisputed that the driver of the Explorer did not flee from the scene of the accident but insteadfollowed Mayer to the nearest parking lot, where he and Mayer checked for injuries and damage to their vehicles. Additionally, the driver only left the accident scene after Mayer told him there was no damage to her vehicle, and they both agreed there was no need to contact the police or exchange information. In other words, it is undisputed that the driver of the vehicle that hit Mayer’s vehicle did not ‘run’ from anything, as he remained at the scene so that there was an opportunity to exchange information. Both drivers simply agreed it was not necessary to do so. Given those undisputed facts, the Explorer does not fall under the plain and ordinary meaning of the phrase ‘hit-and-run vehicle. Thus, the trial court did not err in granting summary disposition in favor of Progressive and Auto Club, as UM benefits were not available under either contract.”

Interestingly, in a footnote, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that it had previously addressed the central issue in this case in Grimmett v Farmers Ins Exchange, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, decided October 6, 2015 (Docket No. 321492), in which it

“concluded that a ‘hit and run’ accident ‘does not just encompass an accident where the other motorist immediately flees the scene—it also includes accidents where the other driver does not immediately flee the scene, but nonetheless fails to provide his contact and identification information to the policy holder or the authorities after the accident occurs.’ ”

However, Grimmett was concerned only with the notice provisions of the policy, and thus the above conclusion was dicta which the Court declined to adopt in this case.


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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