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Bennett v. Russell

Court of Appeals of Michigan

January 16, 2018


         Wayne Circuit Court LC No. 14-013716-NI

          Before: Talbot, C.J., and Murray and O'Brien, JJ.

          Talbot, C.J.

         Plaintiffs Deborah Bennett and Marsha Christine Wilson initiated this action following a motor vehicle accident that occurred on November 16, 2013. The trial court granted summary disposition in favor of defendant Dennis Hogge under MCR 2.116(C)(10). Plaintiffs appeal by right. We conclude that the trial court erred by dismissing plaintiffs' claim against Hogge because liability under a negligent entrustment theory is not limited to the owner of the vehicle negligently operated. We therefore reverse the trial court's order granting Hogge's motion for summary disposition and remand this matter to the trial court for further proceedings.

         I. BACKGROUND

         At approximately 8:30 a.m. on November 16, 2013, plaintiffs were stopped at a traffic light at the intersection of Chalmers and Vernor in the city of Detroit when their vehicle was struck by a white Chrysler 300 attempting to turn onto Chalmers. According to the traffic crash report, the Chrysler 300 was driven by defendant Carrie Russell. During the course of discovery, plaintiffs learned that Russell was not involved in the accident and that the actual driver, Latasha Phillips, had falsely identified herself as Russell when she spoke with the police. Moreover, the Chrysler 300 was owned by Enterprise Leasing Company of Detroit (Enterprise) and leased to Hogge at the time of the accident. Shortly after acquiring the vehicle from Enterprise, Hogge turned it over to Latasha.[1] Plaintiffs amended their complaint to add Enterprise and Hogge as defendants to their negligence claim, averring that they were liable for injuries plaintiffs sustained in the accident under the owner's liability statute, MCL 257.401.

         Hogge moved for summary disposition, arguing that he could not be held liable for Latasha's negligence because he was not an "owner" of the rental vehicle, as that term is defined in the Michigan Vehicle Code, MCL 257.1 et seq. In pertinent part, plaintiffs asserted that questions of fact remained as to whether Hogge negligently entrusted the vehicle to Latasha. During oral argument, plaintiffs' counsel essentially conceded that plaintiffs' complaint did not allege a negligent entrustment cause of action against Hogge, but maintained that there was ample evidence to support that theory and concluded that "the pleadings should conform to the proofs . . . ." The trial court found that Hogge did not meet the statutory definition of an owner set forth in MCL 257.37 and granted summary disposition in Hogge's favor, reasoning that his lack of ownership was fatal to plaintiffs' claim under the owner's liability statute or a negligent entrustment theory.

         On appeal, plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred by granting Hogge's motion for summary disposition because the common-law tort of negligent entrustment imposes liability on one who negligently supplies a chattel to another and, as such, whether Hogge met the statutory definition of an owner was not dispositive.


         This Court generally reviews a trial court's rulings on summary disposition motions de novo.[2] A trial court deciding a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10) considers "the affidavits, pleadings, depositions, admissions, and other evidence submitted by the parties . . . ."[3] "Summary disposition is appropriate . . . if there is no genuine issue regarding any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. A genuine issue of material fact exists when the record, giving the benefit of reasonable doubt to the opposing party, leaves open an issue upon which reasonable minds might differ."[4]

         However, when a party presses a claim of error that was not raised in, and addressed and decided by, the trial court, it is not properly preserved for appellate review.[5] Although plaintiffs asserted before the trial court that Hogge's lack of ownership was irrelevant, the basis of their argument was that Hogge's insurance policy provided liability coverage for the rented vehicle. Accordingly, this issue is unpreserved and this Court's review is limited to plain error affecting substantial rights.[6] "To avoid forfeiture under the plain error rule, three requirements must be met: 1) the error must have occurred, 2) the error was plain, i.e., clear or obvious, 3) and the plain error affected substantial rights."[7]

         III. ANALYSIS

         The common-law tort of negligent entrustment "imposes liability on one who supplies a chattel for the use of another whom the supplier knows or has reason to know is, because of youth, inexperience, or otherwise, likely to use it in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical harm."[8] A negligent entrustment claim can arise from the use of a motor vehicle, as long as the action falls within the scope of the residual liability allowed by the no-fault statutory scheme.[9] In this context, courts have sometimes referred to the liability of an "owner" of the vehicle. For instance, in Perin v Peuler (On Rehearing), the Supreme Court explained that the plaintiff in a negligent entrustment action has the burden of proving

that the motor vehicle was driven with the permission and authority of the owner; that the entrustee was in fact an incompetent driver; and that the owner knew at the time of the entrustment that the entrustee was incompetent or unqualified to operate the vehicle, or had knowledge of such facts and circumstances as ...

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