McCormick v. Carrier, 487 Mich 180; 795 N.W.2d 517 (2010) is the seminal case involving proving a threshold injury to receive pain and suffering and “non-economic damages” following a car accident in Michigan.
The case provided new guidance on the interpretation of the Michigan No-Fault Law, in particular what constituted a “serious impairment of body function.” The case directly overruled Kreiner v. Fischer, 471 Mich 109; 683 N.W.2d 611 (2004), a case that Court had issued six years earlier. Kreiner made it extremely difficult for injured plaintiffs to establish a serious impairment, which in turn make it very difficult for people to receive compensation for injuries even though another driver was at-fault for causing the crash.
The Kreiner case turned the world of third-party auto law upside down. It was not popular. The McCormick issued a return to previous law and more stability in Michigan auto law. It moving away from the “course and trajectory” standard set forth by the Kreiner decision, the McCormick case held that an impairment from a car accident need not be permanent.
Facts of the Case:
The plaintiff was working as a medium duty truck loader at a GM plant. While working, a co-worker backed a truck into him and drove over his left ankle. He sustained a fracture of his left medial malleolus, which required the insertion of metal hardware to stabilize his bone fragments. The metal hardware was removed nine months later in a second surgery. During this time, he was restricted from weight-bearing for one month and underwent multiple months of physical therapy.
A year after the accident, his surgeon cleared him to work without restrictions. However, when he returned to work, he had difficulty walking, climbing, and crouching because of his ankle pain. He requested restrictions at work, but instead his employer told him to stop working.
Soon after, a functional capacity exam (FCE) was performed at the request of the defendant. The results of the FCE showed the plaintiff could not perform the range of tasks his job required, including stooping, climbing, crouching and heavy lifting. Eventually, the plaintiff returned to work some 19 months after the car accident. His employer gave him a less strenuous job that he could perform.
The plaintiff sued the at-fault driver and owner of the vehicle that caused his ankle injury. He sought recovery for his pain and suffering, as permitted under MCL 500.3135.
At his deposition, the plaintiff testified that after the accident he could still fish at pre-accident levels by the summer after the accident, and that he had only golfed once since he returned to work. He also testified he could drive and take care of his personal needs without assistance. He also testified that his life is “painful, but normal”, although it was “limited” and he continued to experience ankle pain.
The defendant in the case filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing Mr. McCormick had failed to demonstrate he had a threshold injury. More specifically, that he failed to show he hd a “serious impairment of body function” that was related to the car accident.
Despite the fact he had surgeries and hardware in his ankle, the trial court in Genesee County granted defendant’s motion for summary disposition and dismissed his entire pain and suffering case. The court held that the plaintiff did not meet the serious impairment of body function threshold provided in MCL 500.3135(1). The Court of Appeals upheld this decision, with one judge dissenting. The plaintiff then appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court.
In a 4-3 ruling, the Michigan Supreme Court held that Kreiner v. Fischer “incorrectly interpreted MCL 500.3135” and was “overruled because it is inconsistent with the statute’s plain language and this opinion. Further, under the proper interpretation of the statute, plaintiff has demonstrated that, as a matter of law, he suffered a serious impairment of body function.”
Under the Michigan No-Fault Act, tort liability for pain and suffering and other non-economic loss arising out of a motor vehicle accident is limited to a list of enumerated circumstances. The Act created threshold requirements. In particular, the law provided that:
“[a] person remains subject to tort liability for noneconomic loss caused by his or her ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle only if the injured person has suffered death, serious impairment of body function, or permanent serious disfigurement.”
This case analyzed the serious impairment of body function threshold. Although the definition of serious impairment of body function changed as a result of the 2019 amendments to the Michigan No-Fault Law, at the time the definition was found in MCL 500.3135(7). At the time, the definition was “an objectively manifested impairment of an important body function that affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.”
In analyzing the statute, the Court found the language provided three elements that are required to establish a “serious impairment of body function”: (1) an objectively manifested impairment (2) of an important body function that (3) affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.
Objectively Manifested Impairment:
The Court analyzed this element first. The Court found that in looking at the statute, an objectively manifested impairment is evidenced by “actual symptoms or conditions that someone other than the injured person would observe or perceive as impairing a body function.” Further, it is commonly understood as one observable or perceivable from actual symptoms or conditions.
The Court also noted how the statute does not contain the word “injury”, rather it says “impairment.” The Court then looked at the definitions of both words and found that “while an injury is the actual damage or wound, an impairment generally related to the effect of that damage.” As a result, the focus cannot be on the injuries themselves, but how the injuries affected a particular body function.
Important Body Function:
Next the Court analyzed the phrase “important body function.” The Court found whether a body function has great “value, significant or consequence” will vary and depend on the person. This element is a subjective test that must be decided on a case-by-case basis. What is trivial for one person may be important to another.
Affects the Person’s General Ability to Lead His or Her Normal Life:
The Court then tackled the most controversial and debated part of the serious impairment definition – what it “affect a person’s general ability to lead a normal life” means and to what extent a plaintiff must demonstrate this to prove he or she has a threshold injury.
After reviewing various definitions of the words “affect” and ability” and the meaning of “to lead his or her normal life”, the Court found that the common understanding to affect a person’s ability to lead a normal life is “to have an influence on some of the person’s capacity to live in his or her normal manner of living.” To do this, a court must compare the plaintiff’s life before and after the accident.
This is important because unlike the Kreiner ruling, which said the entire “course or trajectory” of a person’s life had to change in order to meet a serious impairment, now the person only had to show the impairment had an influence on the person’s capacity to live his normal manner of living.
This is a much less onerous hurdle. This change is hugely important and made it much easier for people to get compensation for pain and suffering due to a Michigan car crash.
The Michigan Supreme Court went on to further analyze this section of the serious impairment definition.
No Permanent Injury from the Michigan Car Accident is Required
First, the Court said that the statute “merely requires that a person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life has been affected, not destroyed.” No long did a plaintiff have to show he or she had a permanent injury to meet the threshold requirement to get pain and suffering as some prior court decisions after Kreiner suggested.
There is No Minimum Amount of Suffering That Must be Met
Second, the Court also said the plain language of the statute only requires that some of the person’s ability to live his normal manner of life has been affected. The plaintiff did not have to show that some of the person’s normal of living has itself has been affected. In general, there was no quantitative minimum as to the percentage of a person’s normal manager of living that must be affected, which was the case under Kreiner.
There is No Set Time Frame For How Long the Impairment Must Last
Last, the Court found the law does not create a time requirement for how long an impairment must last in order to have an affect on “the person’s general ability to live his or her normal life.” Again, a permanent injury was not needed to prove a serious impairment. In fact, even an impairment that lasted a short duration – even a month – could be enough so long as that impairment general affected her normal manner of living.
Using this analysis, the Court finally went on to reject the ways Kreiner interpreted the statute, overruling the decision in total. It then held that the plaintiff in this case not only had met the threshold of a “serious impairment of body function” but had met the criteria “as a matter of law.”
This meant if the case were to go to trial, the jury would not decide whether Mr. McCormick had sustained a serious impairment of body function. That decision had already been decided by the court in the affirmative.
Results of the Case:
The McCormick ruling was a watershed moment in both Michigan car accident law and Michigan personal injury law. The decision opened the availability of compensation for pain and suffering for person’s injured in a car, truck or motorcycle accident due to the negligent or fault of another driver.
No longer did a person have to show he or she was permanently injured. No longer did a person have to worry about getting less money, or even no money, following a car wreck that led to substantial injuries. Even injuries and impairments that healed relatively quickly could be compensated.
The Kriener decision, which had never been popular within the legal community, was no more. The McCormick decision was a flat-out rejection of the Supreme Court’s conservative wing, which had spent most of the 2000s issuing decision after decision that favored insurance companies.
The McCormick decision was so popular and widely recognized by judges and lawyers that in 2019 the decision was codified when the legislature amended the Michigan No-Fault Act.
In fact, the language from McCormick was utilized to arrive at a totally new definition of a serious impairment of body function. That definition can be found in MCL 500.3135(5), which states:
(5) As used in this section, “serious impairment of body function” means an impairment that satisfies all of the following requirements:
(a) It is objectively manifested, meaning it is observable or perceivable from actual symptoms or conditions by someone other than the injured person.
(b) It is an impairment of an important body function, which is a body function of great value, significance, or consequence to the injured person.
(c) It affects the injured person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life, meaning it has had an influence on some of the person’s capacity to live in his or her normal manner of living. Although temporal considerations may be relevant, there is no temporal requirement for how long an impairment must last. This examination is inherently fact and circumstance specific to each injured person, must be conducted on a case-by-case basis, and requires comparison of the injured person’s life before and after the incident.
In the compiler notes of the new statute, the legislature specifically wrote:
“Enacting section 1. Section 3135 of the insurance code of 1956, 1956 PA 218, MCL 500.3135, as amended by this amendatory act, is intended to codify and give full effect to the opinion of the Michigan supreme court in McCormick v Carrier, 487 Mich 180 (2010).”