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Tim Smith
Tim Smith
Attorney • 231-946-0700

A rare win for car crash victims in the Court of appeals

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Since the Kreiner decision came out of Michigan’s Supreme Court, citizens injured through no fault of their own have faced an uphill battle to receive any compensation for their pain and suffering. Michigan’s Supreme Court, who at the time was dominated by a majority of conservatives [all of whom received significant campaign contributions from the auto insurance industry], made it nearly impossible for any auto accident victim in Michigan to prevail against the negligent driver that crippled them.

But, we seem to see a swing back towards common sense when it comes to Michigan car accident law. The recent Court of Appeals case of Craiger v. Oakley is a perfect example.

In Craiger, the Plaintiff went to the hospital after being involved in a car accident caused by defendant Oakley. Oakley was driving a van owned by his employer, Port Huron Auto Glass. After suffering pain throughout his body, plaintiff’s doctor performed an MRI which revealed a meniscal tear. Plaintiff then underwent surgery but his knee continued to hyper extend [flex to far forward], leading the doctor to perform knee replacement surgery.

Plaintiff first filed a suit seeking first-party benefits such as payment of medical bills and lost wages from Farmers Insurance and also pain and suffering damages from the defendants. The trial court granted Defendants’ motion for summary disposition after they argued that plaintiff’s knee problems were not related to the car accident. The trial court generally found that the plaintiff did not show he suffered a threshold injury. In Michigan, an injured person must not only show that the other driver was at fault, but that they were in fact injured AND that the injury was so severe, that it altered their life in a significant fashion.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in granting the defendants’ motion for summary disposition. They found that the Plaintiff did present a question of fact concerning the issue that his knee problems resulted from the car accident. Furthermore, the Court of Appeals agreed that the plaintiff did meet the threshold injury by showing he suffered an impairment of an important body function and that it was objectively manifested. They did agree that the trial court correctly noted that the plaintiff ended his career as a commercial painter due to financial reasons; however, the Court of Appeals said that painting was still plaintiff’s trade and now he lost the option of going back to that trade in better economic times. The Appeals Court described why they felt this injury was serious enough for the plaintiff:

The trial court erred when it found that, even if plaintiff demonstrated that his knee injury was caused or exacerbated by the accident, plaintiff could not meet the test of establishing a threshold injury. Plaintiff showed that he suffered an impairment of an important body function and that this impairment was objectively manifested. Plaintiff has further demonstrated that his general ability to conduct the course of his life has been affected.

Plaintiff suffered pain for a year after the accident, was forced to undergo major reconstructive surgery, and had great difficulty walking for seven weeks following the surgery. He underwent physical therapy from the surgery until October of 2006. Thus, the “nature and extent of the impairment” and “the type and length of treatment required” factors involved in this case support plaintiff’s position that he suffered a threshold injury. Plaintiff suffers continued, and presumably permanent, residual effects. Although plaintiff’s level of pain has apparently diminished since the knee replacement surgery, he still reports discomfort that occurs five or six times each day.

The trial court correctly noted that plaintiff had ended his career as a commercial painter due to financial reasons, however, painting was still plaintiff’s trade and he has now lost the option of returning to that trade in better economic times. One of plaintiff’s physicians stated that plaintiff was employable in a career that involved “no repetitive bending or prolonged standing.” This restriction would prevent plaintiff from returning to work as a painter. Furthermore, plaintiff formerly enjoyed woodworking, including restoring cabinetry, and had been offered a contract to restore the cabinets in a house, but could not do so because of the accident. He claimed that he could no longer participate in this activity because he could not walk up and down to varnish pieces of wood.

Plaintiff’s injury caused him to have to make a decision between a lifetime of knee hyper extensions resulting in “sharp screaming pain” and having his knee joint replaced with synthetic parts. While the knee replacement has led to some improvement in his ability to function, plaintiff is still missing a portion of his body that he will never retrieve. Plaintiff must forever depend on an artificial joint for his mobility and continues to suffer from chronic pain in his knee which will prevent him from returning to work in his previous occupation and prevents him from enjoying his woodworking hobby.

Although the length of time a plaintiff is off work following a car accident seems to be a yardstick for our state courts, this decision still comes to the correct conclusion. You may recall prior posts of mine that describe victims of auto accidents who were left with permanent limps and disfigurement, yet their cases were thrown out of court for not being "serious enough". But here, the Court of Appeals got it right. They reversed the decision of the trial court and sent the plaintiff back to have his day in court.