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Court of Appeals Says No-Fault Act Applies in Construction Accident

September 9, 2021

An accident happened at a new subdivision in Rochester Hills in January 2019. A construction worker, Justin Prall, testified that he loaded equipment onto flatbed trailers and towed that equipment to job sites.

Plaintiff Helps Unload Heavy Equipment from Semi Trailer

On the day of the accident, Prall drove a semi and trailer to the Rochester Hills construction site to deliver two pieces of heavy equipment. Prall said he first removed one piece of heavy equipment, a smooth drum roller, from the trailer by himself using a handheld control device. He then sought help to remove the larger piece of heavy equipment from the trailer.

Prall said that the plaintiff, Giuseppe Balsamo, who was also working at the site, volunteered to help. Prall said he told him the trailer deck was slick. Prall explained how he would unload the roller from the trailer. Balsamo climbed up onto the roller to try to hold the machine steady while Prall tipped the trailer deck underneath it. After Balsamo climbed into the driver’s seat of the roller, Prall started lifting the trailer deck. Prall testified:

I had already gotten it [the trailer deck] probably two and a half, three feet high and it [the roller] started sliding backwards. And then all the sudden, from my perspective, it just—I seen him [Balsamo] stand up and jump off towards the passenger side of the truck, which would have been the left side of the machine, and then I seen the machine almost immediately flop off the side of the trailer.

Another construction worker said that the weather was cold and that both the road and the trailer were icy and wet. He told Balsamo to put his seat belt on and asked him if he wanted a hard hat, which Balsamo declined.

The witness said Prall ‘had the controls, he lowered it [the trailer deck] about two inches, and then the roller just start [sic] sliding and went off the edge.” This all happened very quickly, and nobody had “a lot of time to react.” He saw Balsamo “holding on, and then at the last second, it [the roller] started tipping over and he [Balsamo] tried to jump off of it.” But he “didn’t jump far enough and it landed on him.” The witness said Balsamo should’ve used the seat belt on the roller because it “[w]ould have kept him in the seat” and because the roll bar would have protected him when the roller landed on its side.

Balsamo said he noticed that the trailer was icy, and he asked if Prall had any salt. Prall said no. Balsamo denied, however, that he was concerned about the ice. He stated that he only asked about the salt because he had “seen truck drivers throw salt on the deck of their trailers.” After noticing the ice, Balsamo went ahead and climbed up the side of the trailer and into the driver’s seat of the roller.

Plaintiff Injured When Equipment Breaks Away

Balsamo said that Prall started to move the trailer deck, and he “tried to throttle forward gently” with the roller, but the roller “wasn’t moving forward,” and one tire began to spin. Prall told Balsamo that the roller’s parking brake was on, and Prall climbed up onto the trailer and released it. Prall then climbed back down to the ground and used his wireless remote to operate the trailer deck. As he began to lift the trailer deck again, Balsamo “began to throttle forward gently” at a “crawl.” According to Balsamo, the roller “just broke way and began to slide towards the edge of the trailer, the left side of the trailer,” on the passenger side of the semi-truck. Plaintiff tried to adjust the steering wheel, but the “momentum and everything just sent it, you know, careening off that side of the trailer.”

Balsamo said the roller threw him off. He admitted he didn’t fasten the seat belt when he climbed onto the roller but stated he’d stayed in the driver’s seat until the machine hit the ground, and that’s when he was thrown. He was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Balsamo’s Complaint and the Construction Company’s Motion

Balsamo brought a negligence action and alleged vicarious liability/respondeat superior against Corrigan. He alleged that the construction company (Corrigan) owned and operated the flatbed trailer and that Prall had difficulty loading the roller onto the trailer due, at least in part, to significant ice buildup and icy conditions on the trailer. Balsamo alleged that Prall was negligent in several respects, including failing to de-ice the trailer. He also asserted Corrigan was liable for his injuries under the doctrine of ownership liability because it purportedly owned the trailer.

The Defendants (Prall and Corrigan) argued that Balsamo’s claims  were governed by the Michigan No-Fault Act and that defenses available under that act applied to limit their liability. First, the Defendants filed a motion for summary disposition based on MCL 500.3135(2)(b), which provides that, in a lawsuit seeking threshold damages arising from an automobile accident, damages must not be assessed in favor of a party who is more than 50% at fault. Second, they filed a motion for partial summary disposition regarding Balsamo’s ability to recover economic damages.

Balsamo argued that the No-Fault Act didn’t apply to the lawsuit, and regardless of whether the No-Fault Act applied, there were genuine issues of material fact as to each party’s alleged negligence or comparative negligence.

The Plaintiff Says the Michigan No-Fault Act Doesn’t Apply

Balsamo argued that he hadn’t filed an automobile negligence case. Rather, he argued that he’d filed “a straight forward construction accident case alleging general negligence (stupidity) not only on behalf of defendant Prall, but also his employer Corrigan due to a lack of employee supervision and training.” Balsamo said his suit “sounds strictly in general negligence under traditional theories of tort liability in the context of construction law.”

Balsamo also said that for the No-Fault Act to apply, his injury had to arise from Prall’s ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle. Balsamo conceded that the flatbed trailer being operated by Prall at the time of the incident fell within the definition of a “motor vehicle” for purposes of the No-Fault Act. However, he argued that his injury didn’t arise from the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle because there was no causal connection between his injury and Prall’s use of the trailer as a motor vehicle.

Balsamo argued alleged his injury wasn’t related to Prall’s use of the flatbed trailer but was only related to the roller falling on top of him. Moreover, he argued that the trailer had been parked for some time—therefore, it wasn’t in use as a motor vehicle at the time he sustained his injuries. In effect, Balsamo held that the trailer wasn’t being used as a motor vehicle at the time that he and Prall were unloading it because it wasn’t being driven at that moment. Therefore, according to Balsamo, his injuries weren’t caused by Prall’s ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle. According to Balsamo, because the only possible motor vehicle involved in this case—the flatbed trailer—wasn’t being used as a motor vehicle, the No-Fault Act didn’t apply.

The Court of Appeals’ Analysis

The Michigan Court of Appeals found that if an injury arises out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle, liability is governed by the provisions of the No-Fault Act. Thus, to determine whether Balsamo’s lawsuit is governed by the No-Fault Act, the Court had to examine whether a “motor vehicle” was involved in this incident, and whether Balsamo’s injuries arise out of the “ownership, maintenance or use” of that motor vehicle.

For purposes of the No-Fault Act, the Court said that a “motor vehicle” is defined as “a vehicle, including a trailer, that is operated or designed for operation on a public highway by power other than muscular power and has more than 2 wheels.” It’s clear that the trailer involved in this case is a “motor vehicle” under this statutory definition, the Court held. Plus, Balsamo conceded that the trailer is a “motor vehicle.”

Is a Roller a Motor Vehicle under the No-Fault Act?

The Court found that roller involved wasn’t a “motor vehicle” under the law because it had just two wheels and a roller drum with large metal lugs. It’s used as a piece of soil-compaction equipment and isn’t “designed for operation on a public highway, the Court said, citing MCL § 500.3101(3)(i). Having determined that the trailer is a “motor vehicle” as defined by the No-Fault Act and the roller isn’t, the Court then looked at whether Balsamo’s injuries arose out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle” (the trailer).

Defendants didn’t dispute that Balsamo suffered a serious impairment of body function under MCL 500.3135(1). Therefore, the Court said, if Balsamo’s injuries arose from the Defendants’ “ownership, maintenance, or use” of a motor vehicle, then Balsamo’s potential recovery from defendants is limited to damages for noneconomic loss.

Balsamo alleged that Corrigan was the owner and/or registrant of the trailer and that the trailer was operated under the control and guidance of Corrigan’s employee, Prall. Balsamo added a cause of action for ownership-liability  Corrigan. MCL 257.401(1) provides that “[t]he owner of a motor vehicle is liable for an injury caused by the negligent operation of the motor vehicle whether the negligence consists of a violation of a statute of this state or the ordinary care standard required by common law.” Thus, Balsamo alleged that Prall operated the trailer negligently, leading to ownership liability for Corrigan.

Despite these claims, the Court of Appeals concluded that Balsamo’s injuries arose out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle, and that liability was therefore governed by the No-Fault Act.

Balsamo suffered injuries during the unloading of a trailer owned by Corrigan and operated by Prall. He clearly alleged and argued at trial that his injuries occurred because Prall negligently operated the trailer while he was on the trailer’s tilt-deck. Balsamo also alleged that his injuries occurred because Prall decided to operate the trailer’s tilt-deck without salting it.

As a result, the Court of Appeals concluded that Balsamo’s injuries arose from the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle, i.e. the trailer. As such, liability is governed by the provisions of the No-Fault Act. The Court reversed the trial court’s order denying the Defendants’ motion for partial summary disposition and remanded the case for entry of an order granting that motion. Balsamo v. Corrigan Enters., 2021 Mich. App. LEXIS 5000 *; 2021 WL 3700353 (Mich. App. August 19, 2021).

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