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threshold injury | no fault | serious impairment of body function

What is a “Threshold Injury” and How Could It Affect My Ability to Recover After an Auto Accident?

Michigan is one of more than a dozen states (plus Puerto Rico) to have adopted a system of “no-fault” auto insurance. What that means is that motorists typically recover from their own insurer after an accident, regardless of who was to blame, instead of recovering from the insurer of the “at fault” party. So, your medical bills and other “economic” losses like lost wages, if they occur, will be covered by your insurance company, or if you were a pedestrian involved in an accident by the insurer of the vehicle involved.

But this is only part of what makes Michigan’s insurance system “no-fault.” While economic damages are paid by your insurer, so-called “noneconomic” damages like pain and suffering or loss of consortium are paid by the party who is at fault (in reality, by that party’s insurance company), but only after the injured party proves it can prevail in court. Importantly, however, before these issues even get in front of a jury, first the injured party must establish that they suffered a “threshold injury.”

The statute (MCL 500.3135) begins: “A person remains subject to tort liability for noneconomic loss caused by his or her ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle only if the injured person has suffered death, serious impairment of body function, or permanent serious disfigurement.” What that means is Michigan courts can compel an “at fault” party to pay damages to an injured party only if “death, serious impairment of body function, or permanent serious disfigurement” is an outcome of the accident. A judge will only put the matter before a jury after the judge is satisfied that one or another of these outcomes occurred. This is the “threshold” that an injured party must cross in order to recover for damages like pain and suffering.

While “death” can be easy to understand and prove, the other two types of threshold injury are open to greater interpretation. And, in fact, courts have struggled to find a definition that is easy-to-understand and apply for “serious impairment of body function.” So, the legislature has amended the statute to establish a three-prong test for whether the threshold has been met. Now, a “serious impairment of body function” must be “objectively manifested,” must impair an “important” body function and must “affect the injured person’s general ability to lead his or her normal life.”

Perhaps the most important recent case interpreting that “serious impairment of body function” language is McCormick v. Carrier, 487 Mich. 180 (2010). In McCormick, a co-worker had struck the plaintiff with a truck and had backed over the plaintiff’s ankle, fracturing it. About 22 months later, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s lawsuit, reasoning that the plaintiff had recovered “relatively well” and “could not meet the serious impairment threshold.” Id. at 188.  The Michigan Supreme Court disagreed, however, after carefully applying the three-prong test. They found that the plaintiff’s broken ankle was an objectively manifested impairment that had affected important functions, like the plaintiff’s ability to walk, work and lift weights, and that, for a period, this affected his ability to lead his normal life.

Because of McCormick, plaintiffs in Michigan have a much better chance of recovery after auto accidents than they had during several years before. The “threshold” that must be crossed is still a serious barrier to recovery, however, and injured parties often need help in compiling medical records and making an argument that their injuries meet the threshold.

At Noud & Noud, we have decades of experience in litigating auto accident injuries and are passionate about helping our clients achieve the recovery they deserve. If you’ve been injured in an auto accident that wasn’t your fault and would like to speak with our attorneys about the possibility of a lawsuit, contact Noud & Noud today!

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