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No one wants to have to go to trial. Injured motorists, insurance adjusters, and trial lawyers all work hard to resolve cases without the need for a jury. But when witness credibility is an issue, a judge’s decision simply isn’t enough.
The Michigan No-Fault Act is designed to make it easier for injured motorists to be compensated for their auto accident injuries. Still, sometimes, particularly in motorcycle accidents, receiving no-fault benefits will depend on the credibility of a witness.
Motorcycles do not count as motor vehicles. Motorcyclists must show that their injury is related to the operation of a motor vehicle. When a motorcycle crashes, no-fault benefits will often depend on witness testimony about whether a car was involved in an accident.
That’s what happened in Wojcik v Automobile Club Insurance Company, a recent unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals decision. Frank Wojcik and Tiffany Clarke were riding a motorcycle when Wojcik lost control and went into a ditch, injuring them both. The question before the court was what caused him to lose control.
Wojcik didn’t remember the accident at all, so everything hinged on Clarke’s testimony. In an affidavit and at her deposition, Clarke testified that a car pulled up behind the motorcycle and tried to pass. When it cut back in front, Wojcik hit the brakes, slid on gravel on the road, and lost control.
Based on that testimony, Wojcik’s attorney filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), claiming no material question of fact existed – a motor vehicle was involved in the accident. But Auto Club had a different story for what happened.
Immediately after the accident, when Clarke spoke to police, she said Wojcik began to fish tail on the gravel as he went around a curve. It was dark and rainy, so the motorcyclist could not regain control and went into the ditch. Another witness said he didn’t see a car on the road. Auto Club also hired an accident reconstructionist who said there was no car involved in the accident.
Even so, the trial court agreed with the motorcyclist, accepting Clarke’s version of events. The Michigan Court of Appeals said, in doing so, the judge “impermissibly made factual findings, assessed Clarke’s credibility, ignored her prior inconsistent statements, and failed to view the evidence in a light most favorable to the nonmoving party.
The court summarized the judge’s role in an MCR 2.116(C)(10) motion:
“When ruling on a motion for summary disposition, a court may not make factual findings, weigh the evidence, or decide issues of witness credibility. Pioneer State Mut Ins Co v Dells, 301 Mich App 368, 377; 836 NW2d 257 (2013). However, although a court may not decide an issue of witness credibility, a court cannot ignore inconsistencies in a witness’s statements. See White v Taylor Distrib Co, Inc, 482 Mich 136, 143; 753 NW2d 591 (2008). A court may consider whether a material fact “cannot be resolved without observation of the demeanor of witnesses in order to evaluate their credibility.” White v Taylor Distrib Co, Inc, 275 Mich App 615, 628; 739 NW2d 132 (2007), aff’d 482 Mich 136 (2008) (quotation omitted). Indeed, summary disposition is considered suspect “where motive and intent are at issue or where the credibility of a witness is crucial.” Foreman v Foreman, 266 Mich App 132, 135; 701 NW2d 167 (2005). Ultimately, “when the truth of a material factual assertion depends on the credibility of a witness, a genuine factual issue exists and summary disposition may not be granted.” AutoClub Ins Ass’n v State Auto Mut Ins Co, 258 Mich App 328, 335-336; 671 NW2d 132 (2003).”
In other words, the judge is not allowed to step in and do the jury’s job: deciding witness credibility. If a key fact – like whether a motor vehicle was involved in the accident – depends on whether a witness can be believed, then a material question of fact exists. The case needs to go to trial.
Here, the trial judge improperly ignored evidence casting doubt on Clarke’s version of events. The court pointed out that Clarke had motive to lie. Decisions in Wojcik’s case would affect her own ability to recover no-fault benefits. Also, the motorcyclist was her good friend. By changing her story, Clarke could make sure she and her friend were taken care of after the accident.
Clarke’s inconsistent statements and the testimony of other witnesses about the presence of a vehicle created a material question of fact that should have prevented the judge from granting a motion for summary disposition. By ignoring the contradictory evidence, the judge here improperly considered witness credibility and denied the insurance company its right to a trial.
David Christensen is a motorcycle attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents bikers against auto insurance companies looking to avoid paying benefits. If your client has been injured in a motorcycle accident, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.