An unlicensed motorist who was driving a vehicle that did not belong to him in order to illegally purchase drugs may be entitled to personal injury protection benefits for injuries in an accident, the Michigan Court of Appeals recently ruled in an unpublished opinion.
In Macklis v. Farm Bureau General Insurance Co., the plaintiff claimed that he agreed to drive two acquaintances to a doctor’s office to illegally obtain prescription drugs, in a van that he believed belonged to one of the acquaintances. On the way, the plaintiff made multiple stops, picking up two more passengers and some marijuana. Before arriving at the doctor’s office, another vehicle ran through a stop sign and collided with the van. The plaintiff was taken to the hospital for his injuries and released the same day.
The plaintiff sought benefits with the Michigan Assigned Claims Plan, but the defendant insurance company moved for summary disposition under MCL 500.3113(a), which provides that a person is not entitled to personal protection insurance benefits if the person was “using a motor vehicle…which he or she had taken unlawfully, unless the person believed that he or she was entitled to take and use the vehicle.” The insurer argued that the “plaintiff could not have had a reasonable belief that he was entitled to use the van” and that he “should not get PIP benefits because he did not have a license, was smoking marijuana, and took the trip, with the van, to illegally purchase drugs.” The trial court denied the motion, and the insurer appealed.
The Michigan Court of Appeals panel ruled that, while the insurer’s position was not “entirely unreasonable,” it did not comport with the plain language of the statute. The court held that while the plaintiff was clearly unlicensed and possibly intoxicated, that did not mean he took the vehicle unlawfully. The court agreed with the trial court that there were “genuine issues of fact regarding the ownership of the subject van and what plaintiff knew or should have known about such ownership.”
While the Court of Appeals acknowledged that their result “appears absurd because it rewards criminal behavior,” the panel deferred to the state legislature to “attend to this anomalous result.”
Insurance carriers will no doubt find the ruling in Macklis troubling, but it should be noted that the decision rested entirely upon the determination of whether the van was stolen and the plaintiff’s reasonable belief as to whether he had permission to drive it – a factual rather than legal consideration.