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As more households become blended, the question of who qualifies as a resident relative under the Michigan No-Fault Act. A recent published Michigan Court of Appeals case tests the limit of the term relative under the law.
On October 26, 2012, Valencia Lewis was injured in a hit-and-run pedestrian accident. At the time she was living with Tamekiah Gordon and her son DeQuail Johnson. She didn’t own a motor vehicle covered by a no-fault insurance policy. Instead, she filed a no-fault claim under Tamekiah Gordon’s Farmers Insurance policy as a resident relative.
But Farmers didn’t agree that Lewis should be covered. It filed a motion for summary disposition, saying that Lewis did not qualify as a resident relative. Valencia Lewis was deposed twice. Each time, she testified about her relationship with Gordon. At the first, she described Tamekiah as her “sister.” But in the second, that description changed. It turned out that Lewis’s aunt was married to Gordon’s uncle, making them “cousins by marriage.”
The question for the court was whether the Michigan No-Fault Act required an auto insurer to pay for the personal injury claims of a cousin by marriage to its policy holder. The trial court said yes, but in a published opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals disagreed.
MCL 500.3114 requires an auto insurance provider to pay benefits to “the person named in the policy, the person’s spouse, and a relative of either domiciled in the same household.” According to Allen v State Farm Mut Auto Ins Co, “relative” is a person related “by marriage, consanguinity, or adoption.” The court had to decide whether that included cousins by marriage.
The court summarized People v. Zajaczkowski, which explained:
“In other words, when a couple marries, each spouse becomes related, by affinity of the same degree, to the other spouse’s blood relatives.”
It said that the trial court here hand taken “relative by marriage” a step further:
“Thus, the trial court implicitly decided that marriage creates affinity relationships not only between a spouse and the blood relatives of the other spouse, but also between the blood relatives of one spouse and the blood relatives of the other.”
While affinity in another legal context had been extended to include a stepbrother and stepsister, the court held that this did not extend to the no-fault act. Instead, the court said that affinity as defined in Zajaczkowski should apply.
The court then ruled that in defining “relative” in the context of MCL 500.3114, “a relationship by blood is an alternative to a relationship ‘by marriage’.” Essentially, policy holders do not get to dovetail blood and marriage relations to extend coverage to distant family members as resident relatives. Therefore, Lewis could not be considered a resident relative under MCL 500.3114.
The issue wasn’t fully resolved by the statute, though. The court said:
“[N]o-fault insurance policies may expand coverage beyond ‘the mandatory coverages required’ by the act.”
So even though Lewis didn’t qualify as a “resident relative” under MCL 500.3114, she might still be able to collect insurance claims, depending on the language of Gordon’s particular no-fault insurance policy. That policy said PIP benefits are payable “to or for an insured person” including a named insured or “any family member.” Under the policy:
“Family member means a person related to you [the named insured] by blood, marriage or adoption who is a resident of your household.”
Since the policy’s definition of “family member” was substantially identical to the definition of “relative” under MCL 500.3114 and Allen, Gordon’s insurance policy did not expand coverage of resident relatives beyond the minimum required under the no-fault act. For Lewis, that meant she did not have a claim for no-fault benefits under Gordon’s policy.
If a potential client comes in without a clear no-fault insurance policy, it can be tempting to search for a policy available as a resident relative. But Lewis warns employers not to stretch too far.
Just like in Lewis, many people will refer to close family friends as “cousins” or even “sisters.” Push your clients to be clear about the legal relationships between them and their roommates, and be careful not to rely on generic terms. Make sure the “aunt” you’re filing a claim for doesn’t turn out to really be just a friend. If you don’t, you may find yourself back at square one, and time may have already run out to file a claim with a lower priority insurance company or the assigned claims facility.
David Christensen is a pedestrian accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. He has been working with the intricacies of the no-fault act for over 20 years. If your client is facing a difficult auto accident claim, contact Christensen Law today for a referral.