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Griffin v Trumbull Ins Co, et al (MSC – PUB 7/15/2022; RB #4450)

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Michigan Supreme Court; Docket #162419; Published
Before the Entire Bench; Authored
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Forthcoming; Link to Opinion; Link to Justice Zahra’s dissent; Link to Justice Clement’s dissent; Link to COA Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING: 
General Rule of Priority [§3114(1)]
Exception for Motorcycle Injuries [§3114(5)]
Determination of Involved Vehicle

TOPICAL INDEXING: 
Not Applicable


SUMMARY:
In this 4-3 decision authored by Justice Welch (Zahra, Viviano, Clement, dissenting), the Michgan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals’ affirmance of the trial court’s summary disposition order in favor of Defendant Trumbull Insurance Company (“Trumbull”). The Supreme Court held that Plaintiff Willie Griffin, an injured motorcyclist, exercised sufficient due diligence in attempting to identify the no-fault insurer of the vehicle that hit him before turning to pursing a claim for PIP benefits through the Michigan Assigned Claims Plan.

Willie Griffin was a motorcyclist who was injured in an accident involving a commercial truck. Following the accident, Griffin was unable to identify the truck’s no-fault insurer, so he filed a claim with his own auto no-fault insurer, Trumbull. His claim was filed “within 8 weeks of the accident,” and Trumbull neither paid nor denied the claim. One month before the 12-month limitations period expired, Griffin filed a lawsuit against Trumbull to compel payment of benefits. After suit was filed, Trumbull moved for summary disposition, contending that it was not the highest-priority insurer under MCL 500.3114. The trial court granted Trumbull’s motion for summary disposition, “which effectively eliminated Griffin’s ability to obtain PIP benefits from any insurance company.”

On appeal, the trial court’s order granting summary disposition for Trumbull was affirmed by the Court of Appeals, which concluded that Griffin failed to exercise a sufficient degree of due diligence to identify the no-fault insurer of the involved commercial vehicle. However, the Supreme Court reversed following mini oral argument. In doing so, the Court first recognized that “MCL 500.3114 puts the onus on a claimant to ‘claim’ PIP benefits from a specified list of potential insurers based on the statutory priority scheme. As previously noted, to ‘claim’ PIP benefits in this context can be reasonably understood to mean that one must put potential insurers on notice and submit insurance claims stating an entitlement to benefits and requesting payment. Taken together, this implies that a claimant must be diligent in the pursuit of his or her claim for PIP benefits.” The Court then articulated the following due-diligence standard:

“Due diligence requires a good-faith effort to fulfill a legal obligation or requirement that could ordinarily be expected of a person under the factual circumstances. See People v Bean, 457 Mich 677, 682-683; 580 NW2d 390 (1998); People v Dye, 431 Mich 58, 66-67; 427 NW2d 501 (1988). See also In re Gorcyca, 500 Mich 588, 627; 902 NW2d 828 (2017) (holding that due diligence is ‘ ‘[t]he diligence reasonably expected from, and ordinarily exercised by, a person who seeks to satisfy a legal requirement or to discharge an obligation’ ‘), quoting Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed). While due diligence must be more than a mere gesture, it does not mean that one must exhaust everything that is theoretically or abstractly possible. See Ickes v Korte, 331 Mich App 436, 443; 951 NW2d 699 (2020) (‘[D]ue diligence means undertaking reasonable, good-faith measures under the circumstances, not necessarily undertaking everything possible.’). Due diligence does not require an individual to do the impossible, nor does it require one to commit illegal, unethical, or otherwise impermissible acts. See id. at 443 n 3. Requiring a claimant to identify potential insurers and pursue a PIP benefits claim with due diligence is consistent with the purpose of the no-fault act and its limitations period. We emphasize, however, that this will be a fact-specific determination that must be made on a case-by-case basis.”

After articulating the foregoing due diligence standard, the Court then noted that in the case at bar, “Griffin promptly hired an attorney, tried to contact the truck driver, hired a third-party company to look for applicable insurance policies, put every identifiable insurer on notice, and cooperated with Trumbull’s investigation. Griffin had no legal right or ability, at that time, to force the cooperation of the truck driver who was identified in the crash report… ”

Based on the foregoing, the Court held that “under the facts of this case, Trumbull can be held liable to pay Griffin’s claim for PIP benefits under MCL 500.3114(5). Griffin exercised due diligence by doing everything the law required of him . . . ”

Notably, in reaching the foregoing holding, the Court rejected Trumbull’s contention that Griffin should have simply filed a lawsuit to obtain subpoena power, stating, “There was no reason for Griffin to file a lawsuit against Trumbull sooner than he did, which was, after all, still within the limitations period. In the absence of an express requirement in the no-fault act, someone who is injured in an accident should not be required to file a lawsuit against a known insurance company merely to ensure that he or she can force cooperation of potentially knowledgeable individuals through the power of subpoena.”

Lastly, the Court made it clear that Trumbull’s handling of Griffin’s claim was unacceptable. Indeed, in rendering its holding, the Court specifically admonished, “[W]e refuse to reward Trumbull for its gamesmanship.” The Court then further elaborated on Trumbull’s improper handling of Griffin’s claim, noting that:

“When one cuts through the fog of legal posturing, it becomes clear that the basis for Trumbull’s nearly year-long silence and inaction on Griffin’s claim was a phantom priority dispute. Trumbull did not believe that it was the highest-priority insurer, but it was unable to point to a higher-priority insurer until after Griffin filed this lawsuit. Even if Trumbull’s belief was reasonable, it had several lawful options for protecting its rights. For example, Trumbull could have simply denied Griffin’s claim, in which case the MAIPF likely would have assigned Griffin’s claim, or Trumbull could have expressly stated that it was not the highest-priority insurer. If Trumbull was concerned about MCL 500.3142(2) but did not want to deny the claim, it could have notified Griffin that ‘reasonable proof’ had not been ‘supplied as to the entire clai’ and requested additional information or instructed Griffin to take additional action to provide whatever missing information was needed. Trumbull also could have paid Griffin’s claim and filed its own lawsuit to seek statutory recoupment or equitable subrogation from a higher-priority insurer. Under any of these scenarios, Griffin would have been put on notice that his default insurer, to which he had been paying monthly premiums, was contesting its liability to pay PIP benefits, and Griffin could have responded accordingly. What Trumbull could not do was leave its insured in limbo for nearly a year under the guise of ‘investigation’ while refusing to pay or deny the pending PIP benefits claim and then pull the rug out after a lawsuit was filed and the limitations period in MCL 500.3145(1) had run.”

Justice Zahra dissented in an opinion joined by Justice Viviano on the basis that under the “unambiguous text of the no-fault act, a lower-priority insurer cannot be held liable for PIP benefits when the highest-priority insurer is identifiable and not given timely notice under MCL 500.3145(1).”

Justice Clement also dissented and “would have held that the trial court properly identified the reasons for granting summary disposition to defendants-appellees and that the trial court properly held that plaintiff failed to exercise reasonable diligence in identifying the highest-priority insurer.”


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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