Lawyers’ Corner: Unlawful Taking in Monaco v Home-Owners Ins Co

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When a student driver is injured in an accident, there can sometimes be a scramble to get his or her PIP benefits paid. Issues of license status and permissions can make even a straight-forward case hard to prove. Now a recent published Michigan Court of Appeals case makes the law surrounding unlawful taking a little clearer.

Teen drivers’ inexperience behind the wheel can often cause serious injury accidents. But when a teenager has a permit and not a licence, it can cause problems in collecting PIP no-fault benefits.

In Monaco v Home-Owners Insurance Companythe insurance company defendant argued that 15-year-old driver Alison Monaco was ineligible for benefits because she was driving on her permit without supervision as required by law.

Alison was seriously injured while driving a car owned and insured by her mother and used primarily by her mother’s partner. At the time, Alison had completed and passed a driver’s training course and had a permit to drive, but only if accompanied by a licensed parent, guardian, or 21-year-old. She was driving alone at the time of the accident.

In filing her notice of claim, Alison’s mother stated she did not have permission to use the vehicle. However, later during depositions, mother, partner, and Alison all testified that she did have permission. Her mother testified she was afraid of criminal consequences for allowing her daughter to use the vehicle illegally.

Home-Owners denied her PIP benefits based on MCL 500.3113(a), which at the time of the accident said:

“A person is not entitled to be paid personal protection insurance benefits for accidental bodily injury if at the time of the accident any of the following circumstances existed: (a) The person was using a motor vehicle . . . which he or she had taken unlawfully, unless the person reasonably believed that he or she was entitled to take and use the vehicle.”

The language has since been amended, but the “taken unlawfully” requirement remains.

Unlawful Taking Vs Unlawful Use

Everyone in the case agreed that Alison was only 15 years old and was driving on a limited permit, so her use of the vehicle at the time of the accident was illegal. However, the plaintiffs and the court said that “unlawful taking” isn’t the same as unlawful use.

The court began with the plain and ordinary meaning of the words:

In determining the Legislature’s intended meaning of the phrase “taken unlawfully,” we must accord the phrase its plain and ordinary meaning, and we may consult dictionary definitions because the no-fault act does not define the phrase. The word “unlawful” commonly means “not lawful; contrary to law; illegal,” and the word “take” is commonly understood as “to get into one’s hands or possession by voluntary action.” When the words are considered together, the plain meaning of the phrase “taken unlawfully” readily embraces a situation in which an individual gains possession of a vehicle contrary to Michigan law.” Quoting Spectrum Health Hosp v Farm Bureau Mut Ins Co of Mich.

Unlawful taking includes any person who takes a vehicle without authority, even in joyriding cases where the driver intends to return the vehicle later. The Michigan Court of Appeals relied on the Spectrum case, which said:

“Therefore, MCL 500.3113(a) does not apply to the lawful owner of a vehicle, even if that person drives it under a circumstance that renders him or her legally unable to operate a vehicle. However, driving while legally unable may have implications under MCL 500.3113(a) for a person who has taken a vehicle unlawfully because as a matter of law, one cannot reasonably believe that he or she is entitled to use a vehicle when the person knows that he or she is unable to legally operate the vehicle.”

The court said this reasoning renders operation or use of the motor vehicle irrelevant to MCL 500.3113 and “unlawful taking”. The court reasoned:

“[T]he unlawful operation or use of a motor vehicle is only relevant when the injured person had actually unlawfully taken the vehicle and was attempting to invoke the language in MCL 500.3113(a) allowing recovery where ‘the person reasonably believed that he or she was entitled to take and use the vehicle,’ despite the unlawful taking.”

The court concluded that the fine line between “unlawful taking” and “unlawful use” was wide enough to grant PIP benefits when a teen driver uses her parent’s vehicle with permission, but without a license.

Representing Teen Drivers After Monaco

The findings of the Monaco court demonstrate just how fact-specific “unlawful taking” cases can be. The distinction between permission to use and illegal operation of the vehicle can come down to the credibility of your client and his or her family. In Monaco, the plaintiff’s attorneys presented deposition and trial testimony of the victim, her mother who owned the vehicle, her partner who drove the vehicle, and independent witnesses who had seen the partner give Alison the keys. Without this evidence, permission issues could have fallen short on the basis of “self-serving” testimony.

If you take on a teen driver’s case with “unlawful taking” issues, you need to be prepared to dig deep into the facts behind your client’s family situation and customary vehicle use. Don’t be afraid to be extremely specific. The insurance defense attorney will be.

David Christensen is an auto accident attorney at Christensen Law in Southfield, Michigan. If your client is facing a difficult no-fault issue, contact Christensen Law for a referral today.