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Woman Who Fell While Washing Car Gets No-Fault Insurance Benefits

Posted on Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A woman who fell and injured herself while washing her vehicle at a self-serve car wash is entitled to no-fault personal injury protection (PIP) benefits, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled in a 2-1 published decision.

In Woodring v Phoenix Ins Co (Docket No. 324128), which was on remand from the Michigan Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals majority held that washing the vehicle was considered “maintenance” under the No-Fault Act and that this maintenance was a direct cause of the woman’s injuries.

By washing the car, the woman was “actively engaged in performing essential maintenance to the vehicle pertinent to its use as a motor vehicle,” the majority said. “It may have been routine maintenance and not necessarily of immediate urgency to permit it to move at all, but essential maintenance nonetheless.”

An application for leave to appeal the Woodring decision has since been filed with the Michigan Supreme Court.

Wintertime Washing

The plaintiff’s employer provided her a vehicle, which was insured by the defendant, Phoenix Insurance Company. The plaintiff took the vehicle to a self-serve car wash in February and parked it, but left it running. As she washed the vehicle using the sprayer wand, she slipped and fell, suffering serious injuries. Although the exact cause of the plaintiff’s fall was not determined, the plaintiff claimed she slipped on ice.

The defendant denied the plaintiff’s request for no-fault PIP benefits, asserting her claim was barred by the No-Fault Act’s “parked vehicle exception” (MCL 500.3106(1)). The plaintiff then filed this lawsuit seeking benefits. She claimed that she was injured while performing maintenance on the vehicle and, therefore, the parked vehicle exception did not apply.

The Muskegon County Circuit Court denied the defendant’s motion for summary disposition and granted the plaintiff’s motion. The trial court based its decision, in part, on the fact that Michigan Supreme Court precedent – primarily Musall v Golcheff, 174 Mich App 700 (1989) – was “confusing” and had “not clearly overruled” other Court of Appeals precedent.

Vehicle ‘Maintenance’

In an opinion written by Judge Amy Ronayne Krause, joined by Judge Jane E. Markey, the Court of Appeals held the plaintiff was entitled to no-fault PIP coverage. In so ruling, the majority pointed out the plaintiff was not entering, occupying, exiting or touching the vehicle at the time of her fall, although she was using the car wash’s sprayer wand.

A large part of the majority opinion focused on the precedential effect of the Musall decision, where the Court of Appeals said washing a vehicle is the type of “maintenance” that precludes the parked vehicle exception to bar no-fault benefits. In its analysis, the majority cited numerous other appellate decisions, finding that none were inconsistent with Musall.

In particular, the Court of Appeals majority examined Miller v Auto-Owners Ins Co, 411 Mich 633 (1981), upon which Musall had relied. “In Miller, our Supreme Court observed that it was incongruous for MCL 500.3105(1) to provide PIP benefits for, inter alia, maintenance of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle, but for MCL 500.3106(1) to simultaneously provide that parked vehicles were generally excluded, because maintenance was usually not performed on vehicles while they are in motion and the exceptions seemed irrelevant to maintenance,” the majority noted. “This is completely logical. Consequently, the Miller Court turned to an analysis of the policies underlying the No-Fault Act and the various provisions of it.”

The Michigan Supreme Court “has reiterated that Miller had found ‘that because the injury arose out of “maintenance” of the vehicle, it was unnecessary to consider whether the vehicle was parked,’ but rather cautioned ‘that the Miller holding is limited to the narrow circumstances of that case,’” the Court of Appeals majority stated. “Obviously, Miller is no longer binding precedent in its entirety. However, its essential holding that ‘maintenance’ of a parked vehicle will, at least under some circumstances, avoid triggering MCL 500.3106(1) does not appear to have been implicitly or explicitly overruled. If anything, it has been reaffirmed, subject only to whatever our Supreme Court meant by ‘the narrow circumstances of that case.’ … The gravamen of Miller is that because most forms of vehicular maintenance literally cannot be performed unless a vehicle is parked, the word ‘maintenance’ in MCL 500.3105(1) would be rendered nugatory by MCL 500.3106 unless that maintenance avoided triggering MCL 500.3106 altogether.”

The Court of Appeals majority further noted that just as Michigan residents must be aware of the implications of ice and snow, they should also be mindful of the importance of keeping their vehicles clean during the winter. According to the majority, given that salt is used to clear roads of ice and snow, cleaning a vehicle is necessary in the winter months, in order to see out the windshield while driving.

Moreover, the Court of Appeals majority noted the word “parked” is not defined in the No-Fault Act. “This necessarily implicates the question of whether plaintiff’s vehicle was even ‘parked’ at all,” the majority stated. “While it may seem intuitively obvious, almost every intuitively obvious categorization scheme inevitably breaks down into ‘I know it when I see it,’ which is precisely the opposite of a definition and thus an open invitation to capriciousness and unpredictability. In particular, it should be clear that a vehicle is not necessarily ‘parked’ just because it is stopped, halted, standing, or otherwise not presently in motion. Indeed, our Supreme Court has indicated that a lack of vehicular movement merely triggers a requirement to consider whether the vehicle is therefore ‘parked.’” According to the majority, the most coherent definition of a “parked” vehicle is found in Heard v State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins Co, 414 Mich 139 (1982), where the Court held that the definition of what constitutes a parked vehicle is whether it was “in use as a motor vehicle” or “more like ‘other stationary roadside objects that can be involved in vehicle accidents.’”

To support the argument that the plaintiff was not entitled to no-fault insurance benefits, the defendant cited numerous cases where plaintiffs had allegedly slipped and fell near a vehicle and it was determined there was an insufficient causal nexus for PIP coverage. The Court of Appeals majority, however, said these cases were inapplicable. Here, the plaintiff “was actively engaged in performing essential maintenance to the vehicle pertinent to its use as a motor vehicle,” the majority said. As a result, the plaintiff’s activity was within the ambit of MCL 500.3105(1), therefore making the defendant liable for benefits for accident bodily injury “arising out of the ownership, operation, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle.”

Dissenting Opinion

Judge Michael J. Riordan dissented from the majority opinion.

“Disregarding the convoluted litany of case law discussed by the parties and the majority regarding whether a person washing their car is conducting maintenance and thus exempted from the parked vehicle exception, summary disposition plainly should have been granted in favor of defendant because there was no question of fact that the causal connection between plaintiff’s injuries and her automobile was merely incidental,” he wrote.

According to Judge Riordan, the plaintiff slipped and fell due to a condition on the land – the floor of the carwash was slippery or icy. “The fact that she may have been washing her vehicle at the time that she may have stumbled upon the allegedly dangerous condition on the land was, without question, ‘incidental, fortuitous, or ‘but for,’” he wrote. “Thus, pursuant to the Court’s holding in Thornton  [v Allstate Ins Co, 425 Mich 643 (1986)], summary disposition was required in favor of defendant.”

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