Michigan Court of Appeals Distinguishes “Specific” vs “General” Policy Language

The Michigan Court of Appeals, in Gonzales, et al. v Farm Bureau General Insurance Company of Michigan, distinguished between “general” and “specific” policy language as to its application to uninsured motorist benefits.

The accident in question in the case was a hit-and-run accident, although not the typical kind.  The plaintiffs’ vehicle was struck by a Dodge Stratus which had run a red light.  After the collision, the driver and two passengers from the Stratus fled the scene on foot((quite literally a “hit-and-run“)) and were never identified.   The owner of the stratus was later identified, and testified that the vehicle was uninsured at the time and had been stolen two months prior to the accident.

The trial court((Wayne County Circuit Court)) dismissed the uninsured motorist claim based on policy language which appeared to require that the plaintiffs prove that the driver of the other vehicle was uninsured — because they could not identify the driver, they also could not prove he was uninsured.

Defendant, and the trial court, relied on the following language in the policy, which the Court of Appeals identified as “general” language:

2. The injured person making claim must:

a. provide proof(s) affirming that the auto and operator were not covered by a liability policy or bond at the time of the accident. . . .

The plaintiffs argued that other policy language superseded the above-quoted language — that language defined “hit-and-run automobile” as follows:

a. that causes bodily injury by actual physical contact with the injured person or the auto the injured person is occupying;

b. whose owner or operator is unknown;

c. involved in an accident that has been reported to the police within hours of when the hit-and-run accident occurs. . . . ; and

d. involved in an accident that has been reported to us . . . . (emphasis original)

The Court of Appeals referred to the immediately preceding language as “specific”.  On their face, these two provisions appear to conflict, though perhaps only indirectly (a hit-and-run automobile is included in the definition of uninsured automobile, but the first provision seems to require that the insured prove the unknown person is/was uninsured.)

After recognizing that the policy language alone controls the award of uninsured benefits, the Court stated that because this situation dealt with a hit-and-run, the language specific to hit-and-run scenarios is applicable.

However, the Court did not stop there.  It also recognized that the hit-and-run provision included the modifier “or”((“[W]hose owner or operator is unknown”)), and held that the language used in the policy only requires that one of either the operator or owner of the vehicle be unidentified.  In this case there was no known policy of insurance covering the vehicle even though the owner had been identified.  But, given the Court of Appeals’s holding here, it is conceivable that where one of the owner or operator of a vehicle is identified and is insured, but that the other is unidentified, the uninsured motorist coverage nevertheless may still be triggered if this policy language is in use. 

This opinion has not been approved for publication, but it certainly provides insight into how a court will apply policy language and could conceivably lead to changes in policy language or statutory law.((The court also reversed the trial court’s grant of summary disposition as to a fraud determination, holding there was a genuine issue of material fact.))

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