Relative “Domiciled” In Upstairs Of House Entitled To No-Fault Benefits | Speaker Law
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Relative “Domiciled” In Upstairs Of House Entitled To No-Fault Benefits

Posted on Wednesday, November 18, 2020

In this no-fault insurance case, the trial court properly denied the defendant-insurer’s motions for summary disposition because a genuine issue of fact existed as to whether the plaintiff was “domiciled” in the same household as his grandparents, who were the insureds, at the time he was injured in a motor vehicle accident, the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled.

The issue in Barnes v 21st Century Premier Ins Co (Docket No. 347120) was whether the plaintiff, Curtis Barnes, was domiciled in the same household as his grandparents for purposes of insurance coverage under the No-Fault Act (MCL 500.3101, et seq.). The defendant-insurance company argued the plaintiff was not domiciled in the same household and, instead, “resided in a separate and distinct household” –  that is, the upstairs of his grandparents’ two-story house.

A Wayne County Circuit Court jury found that the plaintiff was domiciled in the same household as his grandparents on the date he was injured in a motor vehicle accident and, therefore, he was entitled to insurance benefits under his grandparents’ no-fault policy with the defendant.

The Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed.

“We hold that the trial court did not err by denying CPIC’s motions for summary disposition,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Barnes and the intervening plaintiffs, we agree the evidence supported a conclusion that Barnes and his grandparents formed one family unit living together under the same roof.”

Judges Mark T. Boonstra, Jane E. Markey and Karen M. Fort Hood were on the panel that issued the published opinion.

Background

The plaintiff’s grandparents had a no-fault insurance policy with the defendant, 21st Century Premier Insurance Company, at the time the plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident. Also at the time of the accident, the plaintiff was living in the upstairs portion of his grandparents’ two-story house.

Under MCL 500.3114, a no-fault insurance policy “applies to accidental bodily injury to the person named in the policy, the person’s spouse, and a relative of either domiciled in the same household, if the injury arises from a motor vehicle accident.” The plaintiff claimed he was entitled to no-fault benefits under his grandparents’ policy with the defendant because he was a relative “domiciled in the same household.”

The defendant, however, maintained that the plaintiff was not entitled to benefits because he was not domiciled “in the same household” as his grandparents. The defendant filed two motions for summary disposition, which the Wayne County Circuit Court denied. The defendant’s motion for a directed verdict was also denied. A jury ultimately found that the plaintiff was entitled to no-fault benefits because he was domiciled in the same household as his grandparents.

The defendant appealed.

“Conduct And Behavior”

On appeal, the defendant argued the trial court wrongly denied its motions for summary disposition and for a directed verdict, and that the jury’s verdict was against the great weight of the evidence.

According to the defendant, the evidence established that the plaintiff was not domiciled in the same household as his grandparents but, rather, that he resided in a separate and distinct household – the upstairs unit of the house.

“We disagree,” the Court of Appeals said. “The house has been used as a family residence and domicile for nearly 50 years; only family members have lived in the home. In our view, the key in this particular case is not the physical structure or design of the house, in and of itself, but rather the conduct and behaviors of the people living in the house in the context of that specific structure or design. Of course, the fact that the upstairs unit can stand alone as a fully functional home – having bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen – is a relevant consideration, as is the fact that the upstairs unit has its own furnace, hot water heater, gas and electric meters, thermostat, and doorbell.”

The Court of Appeals also noted the evidence showed that: 1) interior doors were not locked, including the door between the upper and lower units; 2) the plaintiff “regularly” went into the downstairs part of the house for various purposes without the need for permission; 3) the grandparents had “free and unconstrained access” to the upstairs unit, which they occasionally exercised; and 4) the plaintiff helped financially by covering costs associated with the whole house and not just the upstairs unit.

“If the evidence had conclusively established that the connecting door between the two units was always locked, that Barnes never accessed the lower unit, nor had the liberty to do so, that his grandparents never accessed the upper unit, nor had the freedom to do so, and that costs were never shared, we would conclude that Barnes and his grandparents were not ‘living together’ as a family unit in the same household and were instead, effectively, living separately in two distinct households,” the Court of Appeals wrote. “But that was simply not the situation presented in this case – it was just the opposite. Indeed, we believe that the trial court could have properly entered summary judgment in favor of Barnes and the intervening plaintiffs.”

Therefore, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motions for summary disposition “because there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Barnes was domiciled in the same household as his grandparents,” the Court of Appeals held.

In addition, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for directed verdict and the jury’s verdict was not against the great weight of the evidence, the Court of Appeals concluded.

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