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Volume XXVIII, No. 15, May 16, 2016        

From the Law Offices of Garan Lucow Miller, P.C.

From the Editor: Sarah Nadeau

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MICHIGAN COURT OF APPEALS FOLLOWS RESTRICTIVE DEFINITION OF
“AFFINITY” FOR NO-FAULT PIP COVERAGE PURPOSES

By Eric J. Smith

A tension exists in Michigan common law over the concept of relationship by affinity.  By way of background, consanguineous relatives are blood relatives, i.e., individuals related because they share the blood of a common ancestor.  A “relative by affinity” according to Black’s Law Dictionary and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is defined as “[s]omeone who is related solely as the result of marriage and not by blood or adoption.”

The existing tenstion is over what “relative by marriage” actually means for practical purposes.  Is the relationship between a stepbrother and stepsister a relationship of affinity?  Can someone be a “cousin by marriage”?  How should a trial court in a no-fault case define “relative” when the act itself does not define the terms and the standard insurance contract provision defines “family member” as “a person related to [the named insured] by blood, marriage, or adoption who is a resident of your household”?

In a recent to-be-published decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed this issue and the extent to which someone can be deemed a “relative by affinity” for purposes of the no-fault act.  In Lewis v Farmers Insurance Exchange, ___ Mich App ___ ( April 19, 2016), the plaintiff Valencia Lewis sought PIP benefits under a policy issued to her purported “relative” Tamekiah Gordon following a pedestrian hit-and-run accident.

The Farmers policy defined “family member” as “a person related to the [named insured] by blood, marriage or adoption who is a resident of the household.”  The policy further extended PIP benefits coverage to an “insured person” defined as “[the named insured] or a family member.” Lewis, at 2.

In seeking coverage, Lewis claimed to be Gordon’s “cousin by marriage” because Gordon’s uncle was married to Lewis’s aunt.  Lewis also lived with Gordon at the time of the accident.

After discovery closed, Farmers moved for summary disposition pursuant to MCR 2.116(C)(10) arguing that there was no genuine issue of material fact that: (1) Lewis was not related to Gordon by blood,” (2) she was not related to Gordon by affinity, and (3) therefore, she did not qualify as a “relative” under MCL 500.3114(1) which provides that “a personal protection insurance policy  …  applies to accidental bodily injury to the person named in the policy, the person’s spouse, and a relative of either domiciled in the same household, if the injury arises from a motor vehicle accident.”In opposition, Lewis argued that she and Gordon were “cousins by affinity” which is a “degree” of familial relation. Lewis also argued that neither the policy nor the no-fault act were clear regarding the degree of relation relatives must share to collect benefits under a relative’s policy.

The trial court denied the motion without oral argument. In doing so, the trial court noted that neither the policy nor the no-fault act provided guidance as to the meaning of “relative” for purposes of the motion. After reviewing dictionary definitions and relevant authority regarding relationships and construing the no-fault act liberally in favor of coverage, the trial court concluded that Lewis was in fact Gordon’s “cousin by marriage”. Farmers appealed the trial court’s decision to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by examining the definition of relative for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1), citing Allen v State Farm, 268 Mich App 342; 708 NW2d 131 (2005), overruled on other grounds by Spectrum Health v Farm Bureau, 492 Mich 503 (2012),  where “relative” was defined as a person related by “marriage, consanguinity, or adoption.”  The Court then explored the concept of “relation by affinity,” noting there were competing conceptions of “affinity” in Michigan common law.  In a 1907 decision, the Michigan Supreme Court defined “relative by affinity” as “the relation existing in consequence of marriage between each of the married persons and the blood relatives of the other, and the degrees of affinity are computed in the same way as those of consanguinity or kindred.  A husband is related, by affinity, to all the blood relatives of his wife, and the wife is related, by affinity, to all the blood relatives of the husband.” Bliss v Tyler, 149 Mich 601, 608; 113 NW 317 (1907).  The Bliss decision was viewed as a less-expansive definition.

As recently as 1995 a panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals in a criminal case adopted a more expansive definition of the term.  In People v Armstrong, 212 Mich App 121; 536 NW2d 789 (1995), the Panel concluded that the term “affinity” is not capable of precise definition and that the definition depended upon the legal context presented. In Armstrong, the issue was whether a victim of sexual assault and her stepbrother, who was the perpetrator of the assault, qualified as relatives by affinity under Michigan’s second degree criminal sexual conduct statute.  In the context of that case, the Armstrong panel concluded that the relationship between a stepbrother and stepsister was one of affinity in order to advance the purposes of the statute.

The Lewis Court noted, however, that the Michigan Supreme Court in another criminal case adopted a more restrictive approach to the concept of “affinity”. The thrust of the decision in People v Zajaczkowski, 493 Mich 6; 825 NW2d 554 (2012) is that when a couple marries, each spouse becomes related, by affinity of the same degree, to the other spouse’s blood relatives.

In reversing the trial court, the Lewis Court noted that the Bliss Court expressly rejected the more expansive concept of “affinity” that was advanced in Armstrong and relied upon the trial court.  The Lewis Court further noted that the definition in Black’s Law Dictionary defined “relative by affinity” as (1) any blood or adoptive relative of his or her spouse, and (2) any spouse of his or her blood and adopted relatives.”  Based upon the reasoning behind the Bliss decision and the Supreme Court’s adoption of the more restrictive definition in the Zajaczkowski decision, the Lewis Court concluded that the term “relation by affinity” did not include “cousins by marriage,” rejecting the trial court’s holding.

The Court then looked to the Farmer’s policy definition of “family member” and noted that insurance policies may expand coverage beyond the coverage mandated by the no-fault act. Thus, if the policy broadened the term “relative” to include, for example, “cousins by marriage,” the court would be required to enforce that provision under established rules of contract interpretation.  Viewing the language of the Farmers’ policy at issue, however, the Court noted the language mirrored the Allen Court’s definition of “relative” for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1) where the policy defined “family member” as “a person related to the [named insured] by blood, marriage or adoption who is a resident of the household.”  Because there was no indication in the policy of an attempt to expand coverage beyond that afforded by the no-fault act, the Lewis Court concluded that the trial court was incorrect in ruling that Lewis and Gordon were “relatives by marriage” for purposes of PIP coverage.

 

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INDY CITY SEMINAR

Garan Lucow Miller, P.C. is pleased to present its seventh annual Indy City Seminar, covering both Indiana and Michigan law, as well as a full Deposition Boot Camp, on Thursday, May 19, 2016 at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, 350 West Maryland Street, Indianapolis, IN 46225, (317) 822-3500. The day will begin with a continental breakfast and registration at 8:30 a.m., followed by the morning program. Lunch will then be provided. In the afternoon, please join us for our Deposition Boot Camp program. Comprehensive written materials will be distributed to all seminar attendees.

If you are able to attend this complimentary client program, please register via e-mail with Eileen Carty at ecarty@garanlucow.com or call Ms. Carty at (800) 875-7600. We hope to see you there!

AGENDA

8:30 – 8:55 a.m.         Continental Breakfast and Registration

8:55 – 9:00 a.m.         Welcome and Introduction
Speaker: Gregory M. Bokota, Esq.

9:00 – 9:40 a.m.         Comprehensive Indiana Law Updates
Speaker: Gregory M. Bokota

9:40 – 10:00 a.m        Uber and Self-Driving Vehicles: the Implications on Coverage and Liability from Developing Technology
Speaker: David A. Couch, Esq.

10:00 – 10:30 a.m      Real Property Aspects of Michigan PIP Home Modifications
Speaker: Rachel A. Bissett, Esq.

10:30 – 10:45 a.m.     Morning Break

10:45 – 11:30 a.m.     Comprehensive Michigan First Party No Fault PIP Updates
Speakers: John W. Whitman, Esq. and Rachel A. Bissett, Esq.

11:30 – 12:00 p.m.     Bad Faith Claims in Indiana and Illinois
Speaker: Jennifer E. Davis, Esq.

12:00 – 12:15 p.m.     Question and Answer Session
All Speakers

12:15 – 12:45 p.m.     Lunch Provided

12:45 – 3:00 p.m.       Deposition Boot Camp
Speaker: John W. Whitman, Esq.