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Criswell v Avis Rent A Car System, LLC, et al (COA – UNP 7/28/2022; RB #4454)

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Michigan Court of Appeals; Docket #355626; Unpublished
Judges Kelly, Murray, and Borrello; Per Curiam
Official Michigan Reporter Citation: Not Applicable; Link to Opinion


STATUTORY INDEXING:
Disqualification for Unlawful Taking and Use of a Vehicle [§3113(a)]

TOPICAL INDEXING:
Not Applicable


SUMMARY:
In this unanimous, unpublished, per curiam decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order dismissing Plaintiff Lakina Criswell’s first-party action against Defendant Avis Rent A Car System, LLC (“Avis”). The Court of Appeals held that under MCL 500.3113(a), Criswell was barred from receiving no-fault PIP benefits related to the subject car accident because she was operating an unlawfully taken Avis rental vehicle at the time of the accident. The vehicle had been rented by her cousin who, after picking up Criswell to go shopping, suddenly claimed that she needed to go to the hospital, prompting Criswell to switch seats with her and assume operation of the vehicle, shortly after which they were involved in the subject accident. The Court of Appeals reasoned that because Criswell was not an authorized driver of the rental vehicle, the vehicle was taken unlawfully by her, and therefore, she was disqualified from no-fault PIP benefits under MCL 500.3113(a).

Pandora Hamilton was driving an Avis rental care when she picked up her cousin, Lakina Criswell, to go shopping. The only authorized driver on the rental agreement was Hamilton, but as they were driving, Hamilton began feeling sick and informed Criswell that she needed to go to the emergency room. Criswell and Hamilton switched seats, and Criswell began driving to the hospital, but she got into an accident en route. Afterward, Criswell applied for no-fault PIP benefits related to the accident from Avis, but Avis denied her claim, asserting that she had unlawfully taken the vehicle for purposes of MCL 500.3113(a), because she was not an authorized driver under the rental agreement. In Criswell’s subsequent first-party action against Avis, the trial court agreed with Avis, granting summary disposition in its favor.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s summary disposition order, holding that Criswell usage of the rental vehicle satisfied all three elements of the exclusion from PIP benefits set forth in MCL 500.3113(a): “(1) plaintiff was willingly operating the rental vehicle; (2) the rental vehicle was taken unlawfully; and (3) plaintiff knew, or should have known, that the motor vehicle was taken unlawfully.” As to the first element, the Court noted that all the evidence suggested Criswell voluntarily drove the vehicle, including Criswell’s testimony that she ‘suggested’ that she drive due to Hamilton’s condition. As to the second element, the Court noted that the vehicle was clearly taken unlawfully pursuant to the terms of the rental agreement, which only authorized Hamilton to operate it. As to the third element, the Court noted that Criswell testified that she knew the vehicle was a rental, and thus “knew, or should have known, that driving the rental vehicle would be unlawful.”

First, plaintiff willingly operated the rental vehicle. MCL 500.3113(a). Plaintiff testified that she ‘suggested’ driving because of Hamilton’s condition. There is no evidence plaintiff was coerced or forced into driving the vehicle; rather the record indicates she voluntarily drove the vehicle.

Second, the rental vehicle was taken unlawfully. . . . As the trial court stated, the owner of the vehicle was defendant, not Hamilton, and defendant did not give plaintiff express or implied authority to drive the vehicle. This conclusion is further supported by the language in the rental agreement, which expressly states that no ‘additional drivers are allowed without prior written consent.’ Therefore, it is irrefutable that plaintiff took the rental vehicle unlawfully.

Third, evidence shows that plaintiff knew, or should have known, the vehicle was taken unlawfully. MCL 500.3113(a). Plaintiff testified she knew it was a rental vehicle because Hamilton’s vehicle had been in the repair shop. Therefore, plaintiff reasonably knew, or should have known, that driving the rental vehicle would be unlawful.”

Notably, Criswell attempted to argue that she did not satisfy the second element of the PIP exclusion in MCL 500.3113(a) “because she did not know that it was unlawful to do so under the exigent circumstances she was facing at the time.” The Court rejected this argument, simply stating that there was no authority “establishing an ‘exigent circumstances’ exception to MCL 500.3113(a).”

Moreover, the Court did not provide any analysis regarding how Criswell violated the specific provisions of the Michigan Penal Code regarding unlawfully taken vehicles. The Court simply concluded that Criswell unlawfully took the vehicle because she was not a listed driver on the rental car agreement.

The Court also rejected the arguments Criswell made regarding the “mens rea” aspect of unlawfully taken vehicle situations, as set forth by the Supreme Court decision in Rambin v Allstate Ins Co,495 Mich 316 (2014). The Court simply concluded that Rambin was decided prior to the 2016 amendments to MCL 500.3113(a) and is no longer relevant to this case. The editors believe, however, that the analysis set forth in Rambin regarding the “mens rea” aspect of unlawfully taken vehicles should still apply following the 2016 amendments to MCL 500.3113(a), because those amendments did not change the phrase “unlawfully taken” as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Rambin.


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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