McCormick Decision May Restore Auto Accident Victims' Rights

The Michigan Supreme Court is expected to issue an opinion any day now in the McCormick v. Carrier case - a case with important implications for the rights of those injured in motor vehicle accidents to recover full and fair compensation for their injuries.

Kreiner and Non-Economic Damages

Under current state law, those injured in automobile accidents only may recover compensation for non-economic injuries, like pain and suffering, if they can prove to the court that they have suffered a qualifying injury. If the injury did not cause death, then the plaintiff must have sustained either a permanent serious disfigurement or a significant impairment of a bodily function.

While the requirements for proving a permanent disfigurement are well-settled, there has been much debate over what constitutes a significant impairment of a bodily function. Michigan law defines it as an "objectively manifested impairment of an important body function that affects the ability to lead [a person's] normal life."

In Kreiner v. Fisher, the Michigan Supreme Court attempted to clarify this definition by also requiring the injury to alter the "course or trajectory" of the injured person's life, stating:

"If despite [the impairments] the course or trajectory of the plaintiff's normal life has not been affected, then the plaintiff's 'general ability' to lead his normal life has not been affected and he does not meet the 'serious impairment of a bodily function' threshold."

As a result of the Kreiner decision, the bar has been set so high that only those with the most severe injuries can recover much needed compensation for pain and suffering. Many badly injured people are not able to meet this high threshold requirement, even though they still have serious injuries that should entitle them to compensation for their pain and suffering. The end result is unjust and unfair for those who have been harmed in motor vehicle accidents through no fault of their own.

In McCormick, the Michigan Supreme Court has an opportunity to undo the damage caused by Kreiner and give auto accident victims a fair chance to argue their case for non-economic damages.

McCormick v Carrier

In McCormick, the plaintiff was injured when a co-worker ran over his foot, breaking his ankle. The injury required two surgeries and McCormick was not approved to return to work for one year. Once he returned to work, his employer placed him in a physically less demanding position at the same rate of pay. McCormick then filed suit to recover non-economic damages for a serious impairment of a bodily function from his employer.

Applying the Kreiner standard, the trial court ruled that McCormick was not entitled to non-economic damages for pain and suffering because his injury did not alter the course and trajectory of his life. While the court agreed that he had suffered a serious and objectively manifested injury, the judges did not agree that the injury had altered his normal life. The court pointed to the fact that McCormick had returned to work at the same rate of pay, still enjoyed recreational activities like golfing and fishing and continued to care for himself without help as evidence that his life was much the same after the injury as it was before the injury. The appellate court agreed with the lower court's ruling.

In the dissenting opinion, one of the trial court judges argued that McCormick had suffered a serious enough injury that his case should be heard before a jury rather than decided by the trial court. The judge also noted that McCormick faced the possibility of future problems as a result of his injury and that there was some evidence to suggest that his life had been altered by the injury.

The Michigan Supreme Court granted leave to hear the case last fall. Oral arguments were held in January 2010.

Conclusion

Many commentators are cautiously optimistic that the Michigan Supreme Court finally will throw out the Kreiner standard, or at the very least relax the standard to allow more plaintiffs the opportunity to argue their case for non-economic damages. Some of this optimism is based on political changes in the Court. However, until the Court issues its opinion, the harsh Kreiner standard remains the law in Michigan. While this standard certainly makes it difficult for motor vehicle accident victims to recover non-economic damages, it does not make it impossible.

For more information of your legal options following a car accident, contact an experienced personal injury attorney in Michigan.