Smith v. Johnson – Michigan Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Plaintiff in Pain And Suffering Car Accident Case
Over the past few weeks, the Michigan Court of Appeals issued two separate decisions involving Michigan car accident cases and pain and suffering. In both decisions, the Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff had presented enough evidence to show they met the threshold standard to be entitled to pain and suffering compensation. In this article, we will review one of those decisions Smith v. Johnson, unpublished, docket no. 329295 (4/13/17).
First, a little background is needed. Under the Michigan no-fault law, a person is entitled to pain and suffering compensation if they can demonstrate they have what’s known as a “threshold injury.” There are three types of threshold injuries: (1) death, (2) permanent, serious disfigurement and (3) serious impairment of body function. Most cases, including these two cases, involve this last threshold of serious impairment of body function. Under the law, specifically MCL 500.3135(5), serious impairment is “an objectively manifested impairment of an important body function that affects the person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.”
The elements of a serious impairment of body function are (1) objectively manifested impairment, i.e. one observable or perceivable from actual symptoms or conditions, (2) the impairment affected an important body function, i.e. a body function that has great value, significance, or consequence to the person affected, and (3) the impairment of the body function affected the person’s general ability to lead her normal life.
In Smith v. Johnson, unpublished, docket no. 329295 (4/13/17) the Plaintiff was injured when another driver disregarded a stop sign in Genesee County. Following the accident, the plaintiff complained of low back pain. A CT scan performed a few days after the accident showed disc protrusion at L5-S1 and a disc bulge at L5-S1. She had a course of physical therapy and underwent two epidural steroid injections to the low back. After conservative treatment failed, she underwent low back surgery, specifically an L5 discectomy and fusion of her L5-S1 vertebrae.
The defendant argued that despite this medical treatment, Ms. Smith was not entitled to compensation because she failed to meet the third prong, that the car accident affected her general ability to lead her normal life. In raising this issue, the defendant pointed to Ms. Smith’s neck pain and neck issues that existed before the car accident. Before the accident, Ms. Smith saw a neurosurgeon due to neck pain and eventually was unable to return to her job as a school teacher. However, her neck doctor had released her to go back to work prior to the car accident.
The defendant brought a motion to dismiss Ms. Smith’s case, claiming she failed to meet the third prong of the threshold test. The trial judge ruled in favor of the defendant, and dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding Ms. Smith met the threshold. In holding so, the court stated Ms. Smith’s cervical neck problems were different in kind and severity from her auto-accident related low back injury.
In addition, following the car accident she had multiple disability scripts from her treating doctors indicating she could not perform various activities of daily living. This was different than before the car accident when she could perform these tasks. Further, in the few years leading up to the car accident, the Defendant could only point to a single time where a functional limitation was noted in her medical records.
As a result, given her post car accident medical history and the lack of restrictions from before the accident, Ms. Smith had enough evidence to permit to bring a claim for pain and suffering compensation.
The Smith decision though did have a dissent. One of the three Court of Appeals judges ruled that he agreed with the trial court judge, and believed Ms. Smith’s case should have been dismissed.
This judge believed Ms. Smith’s pre-accident life and post-accident life did not differ enough for her to show the car accident affected her ability to lead her normal life.
This dissent is problematic because it opens the door for an appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court. Although the losing side could have appealed the Court of Appeals’ holding no matter the result, the Michigan Supreme Court can sometimes be more willing to listen and rule on cases that have a dissent.
The “serious impairment” threshold issue has been ruled on multiple times over the past 40 years by the Michigan Supreme Court. The latest holding, McCormick v. Carrier, 487 Mich 180; 795 NW2d 517 (2010), opened the door for plaintiffs like Ms. Smith to recover compensation when injured in a Michigan car accident. The current conservative makeup of the Michigan Supreme Court may be likely to close the door for plaintiffs, thereby eliminating many good claims for compensation.
The Lee Steinberg Law Firm, P.C. will watch where this case goes closely. It is expected the defendant insurance company will ask the Michigan Supreme Court to revisit the serious impairment threshold decision of McCormick v. Carrier.