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Trial lawyers are often faced with facts that complicate their cases. Managing these “bad facts” is critical to your client’s case. A recent unpublished court of appeals case warns attorneys to take judicial admissions seriously. They could be the end of your case.
In Johnson v American Country Insurance Co, the Michigan Court of Appeals laid out the effect of admissions in no uncertain terms. For one unfortunate young woman, those admissions were the end of her case.
Michelle Johnson was injured when the taxicab she was riding in was struck by a hit-and-run pick-up truck driver. Johnson did not have a no-fault insurance policy of her own, so she sought uninsured motorist benefits through her parents’ policy. She was not a named insured on the policy, but believed she qualified as a resident relative.
At the time of the accident, Johnson was in transition. She was still staying with her parents several nights a week, but was in the process of moving into her fiance’s home.
The insurance company denied her claim, and in the course of the lawsuit, sent the Plaintiff formal Requests to Admit:
“2. Please admit that you resided at 13066 Lulu, Ida, Michigan 48140 with your fiancé on the date of the accident described in your Complaint.
3. Please admit that you did not reside at 17766 Ida Center Rd., Petersburg, MI 49270 on the date of the accident described in your Complaint.
The insurance company used these admissions to ask the court to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint because she is not a resident relative under the policy.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the insurance company. It laid out the difference between “Evidentiary Admissions” and “Judicial Admissions”.
Evidentiary Admissions are admissions made by a party that can be used against that party in court. It is part of the evidence at trial, used to prove or disprove questions of fact under MRE 801(d)(2).
Judicial Admissions are formal concessions in response to Requests to Admit under MRE 2.312. They “have the effect of withdrawing a fact from issue and dispensing wholly with the need for proof of fact.” Johnson, at *4, quoting Radtke v Miller Canfield Paddock & Stone, 253 Mich 413, 419-421 (1996). In other words, a judicial admission closes the issue. If the issue is necessary for the plaintiff to prove her case, the admission allows the other party to file a motion for summary disposition and resolve the case. The court ruled “the trial court cannot disregard a judicial admission unless there has been a formal withdrawal or amendment allowed by the court after the filing of a motion.” Johnson, at *4, quoting Hilgendorf v St John Hosp & Med Ctr Corp, 245 Mich App 670, 689-690 (2001).
Johnson argued that her later statements at the deposition regarding her dual residence should create a question of fact and defeat the insurance company’s motion for summary disposition. But because judicial admissions are conclusive, later contradictory evidence was not enough to put her place of residence back into question.
The plaintiff’s lawyer correctly stated that it is possible for a person to have more than one residence. Grange Ins Co v Lawrence, 494 Mich 475, 495 (2013). The problem was not the plaintiff’s living situation. It was how her trial attorney advised her.
Trial attorneys need to be especially careful about how their clients respond to Requests to Admit. Johnson’s answers to two questions about where she lived cut through her complicated residence question and denied her access to benefits. Knowing her situation, her attorney could have admitted that Plaintiff resided with her fiance but denied that she did not also reside with her parents.
Johnson’s auto accident attorney could also have filed a motion to withdraw or amend her admissions in light of her testimony at the deposition. If granted, this would put the plaintiff’s residence issue back on the table and preserve her claim for trial.
Attorneys of all stripes need to be aware of the wrinkles of resident relative coverage. When adult children are attending college, or otherwise in transition, it can be easy to assume they are still covered by their parents’ insurance policies. But if the family hasn’t listed the child as a “named insured,” coverage could come down to which home counts as a residence. Parents of college-age children should check in with their insurance providers to find out how to make sure they are covered.
Since most of the time, auto accident attorneys don’t meet families until after the car crash, it will be up to family lawyers and other attorneys to spread the word and warn families of this potentially expensive benefits loop hole.
David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He represents the victims of car crashes against insurance companies and at fault drivers. If your client has received an auto insurance claim denial, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.