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Kemp v. Farm Bureau General Insurance Company of Michigan

Supreme Court of Michigan

June 15, 2017

DANIEL KEMP, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
FARM BUREAU GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY OF MICHIGAN, Defendant-Appellee.

         SYLLABUS

          Argued on application for leave to appeal October 6, 2016.

          Chief Justice: Stephen J. Markman Justices: Brian K. Zahra Bridget M. McCormack David F. Viviano Richard H. Bernstein Joan L. Larsen Kurtis T. Wilder

         Daniel Kemp filed a complaint in the Wayne Circuit Court against his no-fault insurer, Farm Bureau General Insurance Company of Michigan, seeking personal protection insurance (PIP) benefits under the parked motor vehicle exception in MCL 500.3106(1)(b) for an injury he sustained while unloading personal items from his parked motor vehicle. Farm Bureau moved for summary disposition under MCL 2.116(C)(10) on the basis that Kemp had not established any genuine issue of material fact regarding whether he satisfied MCL 500.3106. Kemp responded by asking the trial court to deny Farm Bureau's motion and, instead, to grant judgment to Kemp under MCR 2.116(I)(2). The court, Susan D. Borman, J., granted Farm Bureau's motion for summary disposition. Kemp appealed. The Court of Appeals, Cavanagh and Saad, JJ. (Beckering, P.J., dissenting), affirmed the trial court's decision in an unpublished per curiam opinion issued May 5, 2015 (Docket No. 319796). Kemp sought leave to appeal. The Supreme Court ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant Kemp's application for leave to appeal or take other action. 499 Mich. 861.

         In an opinion by Justice Viviano, joined by Justices McCormack, Bernstein, and Larsen, the Supreme Court, in lieu of granting leave to appeal, held:

         Farm Bureau was not entitled to summary disposition because Kemp satisfied the transportational function requirement as a matter of law, and he created a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether he satisfied the parked vehicle exception in MCL 500.3106(1)(b) and the corresponding causation requirement. Therefore, the trial court erred by granting summary disposition in favor of defendant, and the Court of Appeals erred by affirming that decision. The conveyance of personal belongings is closely related to the transportational function of motor vehicles, and a person who is engaged in the activity of unloading his or her personal effects from a vehicle upon arrival at a destination is using the vehicle for its transportational function. Shellenberger v Ins Co of North America, 182 Mich.App. 601 (1990), was overruled to the extent it suggested otherwise.

         1. The Michigan no-fault insurance act, MCL 500.3101 et seq., specifically MCL 500.3105(1), requires no-fault automobile insurers to pay PIP benefits to a person for injuries arising from the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle. PIP benefits are generally not payable for injuries involving a parked motor vehicle unless the claimant can show, under MCL 500.3106(1), that one of the exceptions to the parked motor vehicle exclusion applies. One of the exceptions is addressed in MCL 500.3106(1)(b), which states, in relevant part, that an injury may qualify for no-fault benefits when the injury arises out of the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of a parked vehicle as a motor vehicle if the injury was a direct result of physical contact with property being lifted onto or lowered from the vehicle in the loading or unloading process. Putkamer v Transamerica Ins Corp of America, 454 Mich. 626 (1997), provides a three-step framework for analyzing whether a no-fault insurer must provide benefits for injuries related to parked motor vehicles: (1) the claimant must show that the circumstances of the injury fit one of the exceptions in MCL 500.3106(1); (2) the claimant must show that the injury arose from the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of a parked motor vehicle as a motor vehicle (the transportational function requirement); and (3) the claimant must show that the injury had a causal relationship to the parked vehicle that was more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for. In this case, Kemp created a question of fact regarding whether his injury arose directly from his physical contact with property being lifted onto or lowered from the vehicle in the loading or unloading process. Kemp showed that his injury arose as he was unloading his personal items from his parked vehicle and that he was in physical contact with the items at the time of the injury. Whether plaintiff's property was of sufficient size and weight to have caused his injury was a question of fact for the jury.

         2. In addition to establishing a parked vehicle exception under MCL 500.3106(1), to be eligible for PIP benefits when an injury involves a parked motor vehicle, MCL 500.3105 requires that the injury arise from the injured person's use of the motor vehicle as a motor vehicle. That is, the activity giving rise to the injury must be closely related to the vehicle's transportational function. Kemp was injured as he unloaded personal items from his vehicle after arriving at his home. The dictionary definition of the term "vehicle" is any device or contrivance for carrying or conveying persons or objects. A person who is engaged in the activity of unloading his or her personal effects from a vehicle upon arrival at a destination is using the vehicle for its transportational function, i.e., for the conveyance of persons or objects from one place to another. In reaching the opposite conclusion, the Court of Appeals relied on Shellenberger, which erroneously conflated transportational function with some facet particular to the normal functioning of a motor vehicle. But the correct question is whether the activity in which the plaintiff was engaged was closely related to the vehicle's transportational function. That the injury could have occurred elsewhere is of no moment. Shellenberger was overruled to the extent it suggested otherwise. Kemp's act of unloading items from his vehicle upon arrival at his destination constituted the use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle and satisfied the transportational function requirement as a matter of law.

         3. To recover under MCL 500.3106(1)(b), an injured person must also show a causal relationship to the parked motor vehicle that is more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for. The injury must be foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of the vehicle. In this case, Kemp's injury was foreseeably identifiable as an injury that could arise from the normal use of his vehicle, and he raised a question of fact regarding whether his injury had a causal relationship to the use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle that was more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for.

         Court of Appeals' decision affirming the trial court's grant of summary disposition in favor of Farm Bureau reversed and case remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

         Justice Zahra, joined by Chief Justice Markman and Justice Wilder, dissenting, concluded that Kemp had failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact with regard to the parked motor vehicle exception in MCL 500.3106(1)(b) and would have granted leave to appeal to reexamine Putkamer. In this case, there was no evidence that Kemp's physical contact with the property caused Kemp's injury; that is, Kemp produced no evidence that the kinetic energy, weight, or other physical property of the items he was unloading caused his injury. Rather, Kemp himself testified that the injury occurred when he turned and twisted to place the items on the ground. The evidence suggested that the act of unloading the property-and not physical contact with the property-caused Kemp's injury. Simply touching property being unloaded from a vehicle does not establish that the injury occurred as a direct result of that physical contact. Further, Putkamer should be reexamined because there is little question that the third prong of Putkamer's analytical framework cannot apply to injuries arising from parked vehicles under MCL 500.3106(1)(b), which contains its own causation requirement; the Putkamer test does not bear sufficient resemblance to the actual statutory text at issue.

         BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

          OPINION

          VIVIANO, J.

         At issue in this case is whether plaintiff, Daniel Kemp, is entitled to personal protection insurance (PIP) benefits under the no-fault act[1] for injuries he allegedly sustained while unloading personal belongings from his parked vehicle.[2] We hold that plaintiff created an issue of fact regarding whether he satisfied the parked motor vehicle exception in MCL 500.3106(1)(b) and the corresponding causation requirement. We also hold as a matter of law that plaintiff satisfied the transportational function requirement. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the trial court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         On September 15, 2012, after plaintiff finished working, he placed his briefcase, overnight bag, thermos, and lunch box on the floor behind the driver's seat of his 2010 Chevy Silverado 1500 extended cab truck. He then drove home. When he arrived, he parked in his driveway, stepped out of the vehicle, and went to retrieve his belongings. Plaintiff opened the rear door, reached into the vehicle for his belongings, and sustained an injury as he was lowering them from the vehicle.

         Subsequently, plaintiff filed suit against his auto insurer, defendant Farm Bureau General Insurance Company of Michigan, seeking no-fault benefits under § 3106(1)(b). Defendant moved for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), arguing that plaintiff was not entitled to no-fault benefits because (1) his injury did not arise out of the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of the parked motor vehicle as a motor vehicle, (2) his injury did not meet the parked motor vehicle exception in § 3106(1)(b), and (3) his injury did not have a causal relationship to the parked motor vehicle that was more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for. In response, plaintiff asked the trial court to deny defendant's motion and to grant plaintiff judgment under MCR 2.116(I)(2).[3] The trial court granted defendant's motion.

         Plaintiff appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment in a split decision.[4] The Court of Appeals majority concluded that plaintiff's "injury had nothing to do with 'the transportational function' of his truck."[5] According to the Court, "the removal of personal effects from a parked vehicle . . . cannot be said to result from some facet particular to the normal functioning of a motor vehicle" because similar movements routinely occur in other places.[6] Rather, the majority reasoned, plaintiff's vehicle was used as a "storage space for his personal items" and was "merely the site" of the injury.[7]

         Dissenting, Judge Beckering concluded that plaintiff had satisfied the parked motor vehicle exception set forth in § 3106(1)(b).[8] The dissent further concluded that plaintiff had satisfied the transportational function requirement because "it is axiomatic that when one travels in a vehicle, one will take personal effects along for the ride and will seek to unload those personal effects when the drive is finished."[9] Finally, the dissent reasoned that "plaintiff's injury had a direct causal relationship to the parked vehicle" because it was the act of retrieving his personal effects from his vehicle that caused his injury.[10]

         Plaintiff then sought review in this Court, and we ordered oral argument on plaintiff's application, directing the parties to address

(1) whether the plaintiff's injury is closely related to the transportational function of his motor vehicle, and thus whether the plaintiff's injury arose out of the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of his motor vehicle as a motor vehicle; and (2) whether the plaintiff's injury had a causal relationship to his parked motor vehicle that is more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for. McKenzie v Auto Club Ins Ass'n, 458 Mich. 214, 217 n 3 (1998).[11]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         We review de novo a trial court's decision to grant a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10).[12] MCR 2.116(C)(10) provides that summary disposition is appropriate when, "[e]xcept as to the amount of damages, there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment or partial judgment as a matter of law." In determining whether there is a genuine issue as to any material fact, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.[13] "[W]here there is no dispute about the facts, the issue whether an injury arose out of the use of a vehicle is a legal issue for a court to decide and not a factual one for a jury."[14]

         Issues of statutory interpretation are also reviewed de novo.[15] When interpreting statutes, our goal is to give effect to the Legislature's intent, focusing first on the statute's plain language.[16] "In so doing, we examine the statute as a whole, reading individual words and phrases in the context of the entire legislative scheme."[17] "When a statute's language is unambiguous, the Legislature must have intended the meaning clearly expressed, and the statute must be enforced as written."[18]

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. LEGAL BACKGROUND

         "The Michigan no-fault insurance act requires a no-fault automobile insurer to provide first-party injury protection for certain injuries related to a motor vehicle . . . ."[19]

         The no-fault act's initial scope of coverage for PIP benefits is set forth in MCL 500.3105(1), which provides that under "personal protection insurance an insurer is liable to pay benefits for accidental bodily injury arising out of the ownership, operation, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle, subject to the provisions of this chapter." However, when an injury involves a parked motor vehicle, coverage is generally excluded unless the claimant demonstrates that one of three statutory exceptions applies.[20] Plaintiff claims that he is entitled to PIP benefits under the parked motor vehicle exception contained in the second clause of § 3106(1)(b), which provides:

(1) Accidental bodily injury does not arise out of the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of a parked vehicle as a motor vehicle unless any of the following occur:
* * *
(b) . . . the injury was a direct result of physical contact with equipment permanently mounted on the vehicle, while the equipment was being operated or used, or property being lifted onto or lowered from the vehicle in the loading or unloading process.[21]

         This Court has provided a three-step framework to analyze coverage of injuries related to parked motor vehicles.[22] First, the claimant must demonstrate that his or her "conduct fits one of the three exceptions of subsection 3106(1)."[23] Second, the claimant must show that "the injury arose out of the ownership, operation, maintenance, or use of the parked motor vehicle as a motor vehicle[.]"[24] Finally, the claimant must demonstrate that the "injury had a causal relationship to the parked motor vehicle that is more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for."[25] We analyze each of these requirements in turn.

         B. STEP ONE: PARKED MOTOR VEHICLE EXCEPTION IN § 3106(1)(b)

         We must first determine whether plaintiff's conduct falls within the parked motor vehicle exception contained in the second clause of § 3106(1)(b), which provides coverage when "the injury was a direct result of physical contact with . . . property being lifted onto or lowered from the vehicle in the loading or unloading process."[26]

         In this case, plaintiff established a question of fact concerning whether he was injured as he lowered his briefcase, overnight bag, thermos, and lunch box (all of which were bundled together) from his vehicle to the ground during the unloading process. Those items are "property" because they are things "owned or possessed" by plaintiff.[27]And plaintiff testified that he was in physical contact with his property and lowering it from the vehicle when he sustained the injury.

         That leaves only the question whether a reasonable jury could find that plaintiff's injury was the "direct result" of this physical contact with the property. At an earlier stage of this case, defendant argued that the statutory phrase "direct result" means that the injury must be "due to" physical contact with the property-a position that the dissent now advances. We agree. Plaintiff must show that his injury was caused by contact with the property being loaded or unloaded.[28]

         Here, plaintiff testified: "I leaned in the vehicle, picked up my items, brought them outside as I twisted to set them down. That's when I heard bang, stuff fell to the ground, I fell in the truck." The dissent contends, in essence, that this testimony establishes only a temporal, rather than a causal, relationship between plaintiff's contact with the property and his injury and is therefore insufficient to create a jury question. It is true, of course, that plaintiff did not himself testify as to causation, but we do not believe it follows that a jury could not reasonably infer causation from plaintiff's testimony and other evidence in the record.[29]

         We can cite, and indeed the dissent also cites, several cases in which a plaintiff's injury was caused (or alleged to be caused) by the kinetic energy, weight, or some other physical property associated with the thing being loaded or unloaded from a parked motor vehicle.[30] Whether, in this case, plaintiff's property was of sufficient size and weight to cause plaintiff's injury is, in our view, an issue for the jury to decide-unless we could conclude, as a matter of law, that it could not have caused the injury alleged.[31] We believe plaintiff's bundled-together briefcase, overnight bag, thermos, and lunch box clears this threshold.[32]

         Accordingly, plaintiff established a question of fact as to whether his injury falls within the parked motor vehicle exception in the second clause of § 3106(1)(b) because it "was a direct result of physical contact with . . . property being lifted onto or lowered from the vehicle in the loading or unloading process."

         C. STEP TWO: TRANSPORTATIONAL FUNCTION REQUIREMENT

         Next, we must determine whether plaintiff has met the transportational function requirement.[33] In McKenzie, this Court discussed this requirement as follows:

[T]he phrase "use of a motor vehicle 'as a motor vehicle' " would appear to invite contrasts with situations in which a motor vehicle is not used "as a motor vehicle." This is simply to say that the modifier "as a motor vehicle" assumes the existence of other possible uses and requires distinguishing use "as a motor vehicle" from any other uses. While it is easily understood from all our experiences that most often a vehicle is used "as a motor vehicle, " i.e., to get from one place to another, it is also clear from the phrase used that the Legislature wanted to except those other occasions, rare as they may be, when a motor vehicle is used for other purposes, e.g., as a housing facility of sorts, as an advertising display (such as at a car dealership), as a foundation for construction equipment, as a mobile public library, or perhaps even when a car is on display in a museum. . . . It seems then that when we are applying the statute, the phrase "as a motor vehicle" invites us to determine if the vehicle is being used for transportational purposes.[34]

         The Court concluded that "whether an injury arises out of the use of a motor vehicle 'as a motor vehicle' under § 3105 turns on whether the injury is closely related to the transportational function of motor vehicles."[35] To answer this question, we must examine the activity the plaintiff was engaged in at the time of the injury.[36]

         In this case, it is undisputed that plaintiff was injured while unloading personal items from his vehicle upon arrival at his destination. We believe the conveyance of one's belongings is also closely related to-if not an integral part of-the transportational function of motor vehicles.[37] Lending support to our interpretation of the statutory language is that "the dictionary definition of 'vehicle' is 'any device or contrivance for carrying or conveying persons or objects, [especially] over land or in space . . . .' "[38] We have little difficulty concluding that a person who is engaged in the activity of unloading his or her personal effects from a vehicle upon arrival at a destination is using the vehicle for its transportational function, i.e., for the conveyance of persons or objects from one place to another.

         The Court of Appeals, in reaching a contrary conclusion, relied heavily on Shellenberger v Ins Co of North America, stating as follows:

[T]he removal of personal effects from a parked vehicle . . . "cannot be said to result from some facet particular to the normal functioning of a motor vehicle. The need to make similar movements in order to reach for [personal effects] routinely occurs in offices, airports, homes, conference rooms, courtrooms, restaurants, and countless other settings . . . . The fact that plaintiff's movement in reaching for [his personal effects] occurred in the interior of the truck does not transform the incident into a motor vehicle accident for no-fault purposes."[39]

         We find Shellenberger's reasoning to be troubling for the following reasons. First, while it appropriately focuses on the activity the plaintiff was engaged in at the time of the injury-for example, moving a briefcase in Shellenberger and unloading personal effects from a parked vehicle in this case-the proper inquiry under McKenzie is whether that activity was closely related to the vehicle's transportational function.[40] There is no requirement that the activity at issue "result from" the vehicle's transportational function-that requirement would confuse the transportational function and causation inquiries. And, more importantly, Shellenberger erroneously conflates transportational function with "some facet particular to the normal functioning of a motor vehicle."[41]Contrary to Shellenberger's suggestion, Thornton does not require that the type of movements made or the injuries suffered be unique to motor vehicles or that they may only occur in a motor vehicle.[42] Instead, as noted above, the question at this stage is simply whether the activity plaintiff was engaged in at the time of the injury was closely related to the vehicle's transportational function. That the injury could have occurred elsewhere is of no moment.

         This is not the first time we have rejected Shellenberger's analysis. In McCarthy v Allstate Ins Co, the Court of Appeals, after quoting the same passage from Shellenberger, observed that "the movements that [the claimant] made to lift [a box of pasties]- twisting, turning, reaching behind her, attempting to lift the box-could have occurred in her home, her place of work, and 'countless other settings where no-fault insurance does not attach.' "[43] The McCarthy Court held that the causation requirement was not satisfied, stating as follows:

We therefore conclude that, regardless of whether an item is being loaded, unloaded, or merely moved around within the vehicle, an injury resulting from the movement of a person reaching for or handling that item is not sufficiently connected causally to the use of the vehicle to transport the item. Stated differently, we conclude that although McCarthy's injury occurred when unloading her vehicle and therefore arose out of her use of that vehicle as a motor vehicle, the injury resulted not from any circumstance peculiar to motor vehicles but from the act of lifting the box of pasties. As the Shellenberger panel noted, similar movements are made in a wide variety of settings, and we conclude that the fact that McCarthy's injury occurred inside a vehicle does not provide a sufficient causal connection. Simply put, we conclude that the vehicle in this case was merely the situs of injury and not the cause of it.[44]

         On appeal, we reversed the Court of Appeals' analysis and held that the "plaintiff established a causal link between her injury and the motor vehicle. The box of pasties she was unloading from her car snagged on the front seat and she hurt her back trying to free the box up to lift it out."[45] Having rejected Shellenberger's analysis on two separate occasions, we now overrule it to the extent that it is inconsistent with our opinion today.

         We hold that unloading property from a vehicle upon arrival at a destination constitutes use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle and satisfies the transportational function requirement.[46] In the present case, plaintiff testified that he sustained an injury while unloading his belongings from his vehicle upon arriving at his house. As a result, plaintiff satisfied the transportational function requirement as a matter of law.

         D. STEP THREE: CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP

         Finally, we must consider whether "the injury had a causal relationship to the parked motor vehicle that [was] more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for."[47] In Thornton, we adopted the following causation test set forth in Kangas v Aetna Casualty & Surety Co:

"[T]here . . . must be a causal connection between the injury sustained and the ownership, maintenance or use of the automobile and which causal connection is more than incidental, fortuitous or but for. The injury must be foreseeably identifiable with the normal use, maintenance and ownership of the vehicle."[48]

         After noting "a significant difference between the contractual language construed in Kangas-'arising out of the use of a motor vehicle'-and the statutory language at issue [in Thornton]: 'arising out of the use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle, "[49] we concluded that there can be no recovery of no-fault PIP benefits unless the causal connection between the injury and the use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle "is more than 'but for, ' incidental, or fortuitous."[50]

         In Thornton, as noted previously, we explained that " '[e]ach of the exceptions to the parking exclusion . . . describes an instance where, although the vehicle is parked, its involvement in an accident is nonetheless directly related to its character as a motor vehicle.' "[51] We have already concluded above that plaintiff created an issue of fact that his conduct in unloading his vehicle upon arrival at his destination falls within the parked motor vehicle exception contained in the second clause of § 3106(1)(b). And we have concluded that, as a matter of law, plaintiff was using his vehicle as a motor vehicle, i.e, for a transportational purpose, when he was unloading his property from it. All that is left, then, is to determine whether plaintiff's injury had a causal relation to his conduct in unloading his vehicle that was more than incidental, fortuitous, or but for.[52]

         We believe that plaintiff's injury-suffered while he was unloading his property from his vehicle upon his arrival home-was foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of the vehicle. The parked motor vehicle exception contained in the second clause of § 3106(1)(b) has its own causation component. See MCL 500.3106(1)(b) (stating that "the injury was a direct result of physical contact") (emphasis added). Having already concluded that plaintiff has established a question of fact regarding whether he met this causation requirement, we also conclude that he has raised a question of fact ...


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