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Lawyers’ Corner: Burden of Proof in Rayfield v Stewart

Defending against a Motion for Summary Disposition is a crucial part of any Third Party auto accident case. A recent unpublished opinion from the Michigan Court of Appeals reminds lawyers to pay attention to the burden of proof as they prepare their responses.

Rayfield v Stewart is a straightforward case. The plaintiff – an injured driver named Billy Rayfield – sued the at-fault driver, Edwin Stewart, and American Reliable Insurance Company,  seeking Third Party negligence damages and uninsured motorist coverage. He claimed that Stewart was uninsured at the time of the accident on June 3, 2010. The problem was, so was he. The court said:

“An uninsured motorist cannot bring a third party no-fault action, MCL 500.3135(2)(c), and a person who had no insurance clearly cannot sue for breach of an insurance policy.”

So Stewart and American Reliable filed motions for summary disposition under MRC 2.116(C)(10), arguing there was no issue of material fact.

The case hinged on the question: did Mr. Rayfield have insurance at the time of the accident. Its analysis provides a good summary of how the burden of proof works in a motion for summary disposition.

The Moving Party Has the Initial Burden of Proof

As the court explained:

Defendants filed motions for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), arguing that plaintiff was uninsured at the time of the accident. Thus, defendants had the initial burden of supporting their positions by affidavits, depositions, admissions, or other documentary evidence.

It is up to moving parties to lay evidence supporting what they believe to be the facts in the case. American Reliable did just that. It provided affidavits from:

  • A vice-president of underwriting and policy services, showing the Plaintiff was sent an offer of renewal packet, courtesy reminder, and termination notice when the policy was not paid, and that the renewal premium was never received.
  • A director of operations accounting explaining how checks sent to a central office trigger notices to the insurer when premiums are paid, and that no such notice was generated.
  • A claims supervisor who reviewed Rayfield’s insurance history and explained the Certificate of Insurance would have been included in the renewal packet sent 45 days before the renewal payment was due.

All of this evidence tended to show there was no material question of fact: the Plaintiff’s insurance had lapsed due to non-payment

Shifting the Burden of Proof to the Responding Party

Once the moving party met it’s burden to produce evidence, the burden shifted to the responding party.

“After this evidence was presented to support defendants’ claims that plaintiff was uninsured on the date of the accident, the burden shifted to plaintiff to present evidence showing that a genuine issue of fact existed on this dispositive issue.”

Trial attorneys defending motions for summary disposition can’t just deny the evidence provided or allege a different set of facts. They must produce documentary evidence and produce specific facts showing a genuine issue of fact to be decided by the jury.

That’s where Rayfield’s attorneys ran into trouble. In support of their response to the motion for summary disposition, they were only able to produce the plaintiff’s own testimony. He testified that he purchased a money order, put it in an envelope addressed to the address listed on his Certificate of Insurance, and mailed it. But he couldn’t produce the receipt for the money order, or any confirmation of mailing. He had nothing to support his self-serving allegations.

In this case, the plaintiff would have needed to do more than just show the premium was mailed. He needed to show that he was insured. It appears, the last notice received from the insurance company warned him his policy had been terminated for non-payment. To survive the defendants’ motion for summary disposition, Mr. Rayfield would have needed to show the plan had been reinstated.

Advising Your Client on Burden of Proof

Most people understand that they need to prove their case in court. But many do not know the difference between self-serving personal testimony and objective documentary evidence. Long before you receive a Motion for Summary Disposition, trial attorneys need to explain to their clients the importance of keeping everything related to their accident.

Get proof of your client’s insurance, and their payment history, from your client as soon as you can. If necessary, request it from the insurance company as part of discovery. Also ask your client to track down any proof of online payments or bills showing past payments. All of this can be used to help your client avoid Mr. Rayfield’s fate.

David Christensen is a trial attorney with nearly 25 years of experience representing auto accident victims. He will be a featured speaker at the Institute of Continuing Legal Education’s No-Fault Institute coming up on April 28 and 29, 2016. If your clients are facing a challenging auto accident lawsuit, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.