In this action for personal protection insurance (PIP) benefits under the no-fault act, MCL 500.3101 et seq., defendant appeals by leave granted
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
This case arises out of plaintiff's claim for PIP benefits — under a no-fault policy issued by defendant to plaintiff's purported relative, Tamekiah Gordon — for injuries plaintiff suffered as a pedestrian during a hit-and-run car accident on October 26, 2012. On that date, plaintiff was a resident of Harrison Township, Michigan, and lived in a townhouse with Gordon and DeQuail Johnson, Gordon's son. At the time,
Under the general definitions section in Gordon's no-fault policy, "family member" was defined as follows: "
Approximately 10 months after the accident, plaintiff initiated the instant action, asserting that defendant failed to pay PIP benefits to which she was entitled. The basis of her claim was that, under the terms of Gordon's policy and MCL 500.3114(1), which provides that PIP benefits can be recovered by "the person named in the policy" or "a relative ... domiciled in the same household," plaintiff qualified as a "relative" who was "domiciled in the same household" as Gordon at the time of the accident, entitling her to PIP benefits under Gordon's policy. (Emphasis added.)
In October 2013, defendant filed an answer to plaintiff's complaint. Along with its answer, defendant asserted, as an affirmative defense, that it was not first in priority to pay the no-fault benefits at issue.
Discovery ensued, spanning roughly 11 months. Plaintiff was deposed twice, and both times she was questioned about her relationship to Gordon. During her first deposition, plaintiff described Gordon as her sister. However, at the second deposition, plaintiff described Gordon as her cousin:
Contrary to her testimony during the first deposition, plaintiff admitted at the second deposition that Gordon was not her blood relative, deeming Gordon her "cousin by marriage."
In September 2014, defendant filed a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10). Defendant argued that, given plaintiff's testimony at the second deposition, no genuine issue of material fact existed regarding the relationship between plaintiff and Gordon. Defendant further argued that (1) plaintiff was admittedly unrelated to Gordon by blood, (2) plaintiff was also, as a matter of law, unrelated to Gordon by affinity (i.e., by marriage), and (3) therefore, plaintiff did not qualify as Gordon's relative under MCL 500.3114(1). Finally, defendant argued that because plaintiff was not Gordon's relative, she was not entitled to PIP benefits under Gordon's policy.
In response, plaintiff argued that she and Gordon were "cousins by affinity," which is a degree of familial relation. Plaintiff also argued that both the no-fault act and the language of Gordon's policy were unclear regarding "the degree of relation that relatives must share in order to collect [PIP] benefits under [a] relative's insurance policy." Therefore, according to plaintiff, summary disposition in favor of defendant was improper because there was a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether plaintiff was entitled to PIP benefits under Gordon's policy, and that question had to be decided by the trier of fact.
The trial court decided the matter without entertaining oral argument. Although the trial court briefly examined the definition of "family member" in Gordon's policy, its analysis focused primarily on the meaning of the term "relative" in MCL 500.3114(1). Noting that the no-fault act does not define "relative," the trial court determined that it must give the term its plain and ordinary meaning. After reviewing dictionary definitions and relevant authority regarding relationships by affinity, the trial court concluded that plaintiff and Gordon were "cousin[s] by marriage." Observing that it was required to construe the no-fault act liberally in favor of coverage, the trial court then held that "plaintiff is a `relative' of Gordon according to the plain language of MCL 500.3114(1) and the subject policy language." Accordingly, the trial court denied defendant's motion for summary disposition.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
"This Court reviews de novo a trial court's decision on a motion for summary disposition." Allen v. Bloomfield Hills Sch. Dist., 281 Mich.App. 49, 52, 760 N.W.2d 811 (2008). When reviewing a motion for summary disposition under MCR 2.116(C)(10), this Court may only consider, in the light most favorable to the party
Additionally, "[i]ssues of statutory construction are questions of law, which [this Court] review[s] de novo." Corwin v. DaimlerChrysler Ins. Co., 296 Mich.App. 242, 253, 819 N.W.2d 68 (2012). Likewise, this Court reviews de novo, as a question of law, "the construction and interpretation of an insurance contract[.]" Henderson v. State Farm. Fire & Cas. Co., 460 Mich. 348, 353, 596 N.W.2d 190 (1999).
"An insurer who elects to provide automobile insurance is liable to pay no-fault benefits subject to the provisions of the [no-fault] act." Corwin, 296 Mich.App. at 254, 819 N.W.2d 68 (quotation marks and citation omitted; alteration in original); see also MCL 500.3105(1). Insurance contracts in conflict with the no-fault act must be construed when reasonably possible "in a manner that renders them `compatible with the existing public policy as reflected in the no-fault act,'" Corwin, 296 Mich.App. at 257, 819 N.W.2d 68 (citation omitted), but no-fault policies may expand coverage beyond "the mandatory coverages required" by the act, see Wilkie v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 469 Mich. 41, 44, 664 N.W.2d 776 (2003).
The trial court's decision in this case was based not only on its interpretation of MCL 500.3114(1), but also on its determination that Gordon qualifies as a family member under the insurance policy. Accordingly, our analysis of this issue requires two separate, but related, inquiries: (1) whether plaintiff qualifies as a relative of Gordon for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1); and (2) if the policy provides broader coverage than that required under MCL 500.3114(1), whether plaintiff qualifies as a family member as that term is used in the policy.
We conclude that plaintiff neither qualifies as a relative under MCL 500.3114(1), nor as a family member under the insurance policy.
A. MCL 500.3114(1)
PIP benefits are recoverable by "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." MCL 500.3114(1). See Stone v. Auto-Owners
It is undisputed that Gordon and plaintiff were not married, were not related by blood, and were not related by adoption at the time of the accident. Thus, the issue here is whether plaintiff qualifies as Gordon's relative by marriage, i.e., "by affinity." See Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed.) (defining "relative by affinity" as "[s]omeone who is related solely as the result of a marriage and not by blood or adoption"). See also Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) (defining "affinity" as a "relationship by marriage").
Michigan statutes and caselaw have long recognized the fundamental difference between consanguineous (blood) relatives, i.e., individuals related because they share the blood of a common ancestor, and relatives by affinity, i.e., individuals related by marriage. See, e.g., People v. Zajaczkowski, 493 Mich. 6, 13, 825 N.W.2d 554 (2012) ("[T]he context in which the term `by blood' is used in [MCL 750.520b(1)(b)(ii)] indicates that it is meant as an alternative to the term `by affinity.'"); Berdan v. Milwaukee Mut. Life-Ins. Co., 136 Mich. 396, 402, 99 N.W. 411 (1904) ("By marriage, one party thereto holds, by affinity, the same relation to the kindred of the other that the latter holds by consanguinity.") (quotation marks and citations omitted); Mann v. Hyde, 71 Mich. 278, 281-282, 39 N.W. 78 (1888) (explaining that a decedent's sister-in-law was not a blood relative but was, instead, related to the decedent only by affinity). In Zajaczkowski, the Michigan Supreme Court reaffirmed this distinction, defining affinity as
In other words, when a couple marries, each spouse becomes related by affinity to the other spouse's blood relatives by the same degree.
However, the meaning of "relative by marriage" adopted by the trial court in this case extended affinity principles a step further. The trial court decided that, because plaintiff's paternal aunt is married to Gordon's paternal uncle, plaintiff and Gordon are "cousins by affinity." 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.
We recognize that Michigan caselaw may provide limited support for such an extension of affinity principles beyond their traditional confines. See, e.g., People v. Armstrong, 212 Mich.App. 121, 128-129, 536 N.W.2d 789 (1995); Turner v. Auto Club Ins. Ass'n, 448 Mich. 22, 28, 528 N.W.2d 681 (1995) (stating the liberal rule
In Armstrong, 212 Mich.App. 121, 536 N.W.2d 789, this Court construed affinity as the word is used in the second-degree criminal sexual conduct statute, MCL 750.520c(1) ("The actor is related by blood or affinity ... to the victim."). At issue in that case was whether a victim of sexual assault and her stepbrother, who was the perpetrator of the assault, qualified as relatives by affinity under MCL 750.520c(1), despite the fact that they did not qualify as relatives under the Michigan Supreme Court's definition of affinity in Bliss, 149 Mich. at 608, 113 N.W. 317 (the definition recently reiterated by the Michigan Supreme Court in Zajaczkowski, 493 Mich. at 13-14, 825 N.W.2d 554). Armstrong, 212 Mich.App. at 122-129, 536 N.W.2d 789. Citing a 1950 decision of the Washington Supreme Court,
However, based on our Supreme Court's more recent opinion in Zajaczkowski and its reliance on Bliss, we conclude that this Court's expanded definition of affinity in Armstrong is not controlling in this case. In support of its conclusion that the Michigan Supreme Court's definition of affinity, as announced in Bliss, did not mandate its decision, the Armstrong Court relied on three distinct conclusions of law: (1) "the term `affinity' is not capable of precise definition," (2) "at common law, whether someone was related to another by affinity depended upon the legal context presented," and (3) "in Bliss, our Supreme Court expressly limited the applicability of the definition of affinity that it adopted" to "the factual and legal context" of Bliss. Armstrong, 212 Mich.App. at 125-126, 536 N.W.2d 789. The first two of those conclusions were supported solely by citation of the Washington Supreme Court opinion. However, although this Court may rely on cases from other jurisdictions as persuasive authority, they are not binding. Hiner v. Mojica, 271 Mich.App. 604, 612, 722 N.W.2d 914 (2006). More importantly, since Armstrong was decided, the Michigan Supreme Court's Zajaczkowski decision reaffirmed the Bliss definition of affinity, without mentioning the limiting language emphasized by the Armstrong Court. See Zajaczkowski, 493 Mich. at 13-14, 825 N.W.2d 554. Therefore, even though Zajaczkowski construed the first-degree criminal sexual conduct statute, MCL 750.520b(1)(b)(ii), rather than the no-fault act, we conclude that the Michigan Supreme Court's approval of the Bliss definition of affinity in Zajaczkowski demonstrates that this remains the commonly understood meaning of affinity under Michigan law. This definition, accordingly, must be applied in this case.
Therefore, "relative," in the context of MCL 500.3114(1), means a person related "by marriage, consanguinity, or adoption." Allen, 268 Mich.App. at 345, 708 N.W.2d 131. For purposes of MCL 500.3114(1), a relationship by blood is an alternative to a relationship by marriage, i.e., by affinity. Consistent with the Michigan Supreme Court's decision in Zajaczkowski, we conclude that in this statutory context, a relationship by affinity or marriage consists of
The use of this definition is especially appropriate given the Bliss Court's further discussion of the reasons why it adopted this definition and declined to adopt another rule:
Plaintiff seeks PIP benefits from defendant on the theory that she qualifies as Gordon's relative by marriage. However, plaintiff's purported relationship with Gordon, through the marriage of plaintiff's paternal aunt to Gordon's paternal uncle, does not fall within the common understanding of relative by affinity under Michigan law. Rather, their relationship is
Thus, the trial court erred.
B. "FAMILY MEMBER" UNDER THE INSURANCE POLICY
As discussed, no-fault insurance policies may expand coverage beyond "the mandatory coverages required" by the act. See Wilkie, 469 Mich. at 44, 664 N.W.2d 776. Therefore, if the language of the policy expanded the scope of PIP coverage beyond that required by MCL 500.3114(1), and plaintiff falls within that expanded scope of coverage, we must affirm the trial court's decision. See Neville v. Neville, 295 Mich.App. 460, 470, 812 N.W.2d 816 (2012) ("This Court ... will not reverse when a trial court reaches the right result for a wrong reason.").
"Because a no-fault insurance policy is a contract, the general rules of contract interpretation apply." Fuller v. GEICO Indemnity Co., 309 Mich.App. 495, 498, 872 N.W.2d 504 (2015). "Clear and unambiguous provisions of an insurance policy must be enforced according to their plain meanings." Id. "As a general rule, where terms having a definite legal meaning are used in a written contract, the parties to the contract are presumed to have intended such terms to have their proper legal meaning, absent a contrary intention appearing in the instrument." Prentis Family Foundation, Inc. v. Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute, 266 Mich.App. 39, 58, 698 N.W.2d 900 (2005) (quotation marks and citations omitted).
As stated, Part III of the policy at issue, which governs PIP coverage, provides that PIP benefits are payable "to or for an
The definition of "family member" in the policy is substantively identical to the definition of "relative" contemplated by this Court in Allen for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1). See Allen, 268 Mich.App. at 345, 708 N.W.2d 131 (requiring that a relative be related to the insured "by marriage, consanguinity, or adoption"; it was not enough that the claimant and the insured resided in the same house). Accordingly, we conclude that the insurance policy does not expand coverage beyond that required by the no-fault act, see Wilkie, 469 Mich. at 44, 664 N.W.2d 776; the term "family member" under the policy should be construed in the same manner as "relative" for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1). Stated differently, because there is no indication to the contrary, we presume that the parties intended for the terms "family member" and "related by marriage" in the policy to have the same meaning as "relative" and "related by marriage" for purposes of MCL 500.3114(1). Further, because "related by marriage" is not defined in the insurance policy, and there is no indication that the parties intended for this term to deviate from the proper legal meaning of "by marriage" or "by affinity," we presume that the parties intended that the term "have [its] proper legal meaning." Prentis Family Foundation, 266 Mich. App. at 58, 698 N.W.2d 900 (quotation marks and citations omitted).
Because established Michigan law does not recognize the purported "cousins by marriage" relationship between plaintiff and Gordon, the trial court erred by holding that plaintiff was Gordon's "relative"; plaintiff was not entitled to PIP benefits under MCL 500.3114(1) or the no-fault policy issued by defendant.
Reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting summary disposition in favor of defendant.
MURRAY, P.J., and STEPHENS and RIORDAN, JJ., concurred.
Other jurisdictions have similarly recognized this conceptualization of relationships by marriage or affinity. See, e.g., 41 Am Jur 2d, Husband and Wife, § 4, pp. 16-17; Sjogren v. Metro. Prop & Cas. Ins. Co., 703 A.2d 608, 611 (R.I., 1997); Criminal Injuries Compensation Bd. v. Remson, 282 Md. 168, 183, 384 A.2d 58 (1978) ("Affinity is relationship by marriage. It is the connection between a spouse and the blood relatives of the other spouse.... [T]he meaning of affinity as the tie between one spouse and the blood relatives of the other spouse is the overwhelming view throughout the country."). But see Flitton v. Equity Fire & Cas. Co., 824 P.2d 1132, 1133-1134 (Okla., 1992) (noting that the insurance policy at issue did not use the term "affinity" and concluding that the insured's stepbrother was covered as a "family member" under the policy); Sigel v. New Jersey, Mfr. Ins. Co., 328 N.J.Super. 293, 296-297, 745 A.2d 602 (2000) (following the reasoning in Flitton and holding that two stepsiblings were "related by marriage," as that term was used in the insurance policy at issue).