Ellen Andary suffered lasting brain injuries and lost the ability to walk after the car she was riding in was hit head-on in 2014. As a result of the comprehensive coverage that was mandatory under Michigan law at the time, the around-the-clock care needed by the East Lansing resident has been paid for by insurance. But that care, and Ms. Andary’s future – like that of thousands of other Michiganders – now depends on a ruling the Michigan Supreme Court is expected to issue sometime this month.
For decades, Michiganders injured in car accidents and covered by insurance were guaranteed access to the medical care, rehabilitation, and the resources necessary to live full lives – for as long as they lived. That guarantee disappeared after the Michigan Legislature changed the law in 2019. Now, instead of being automatic, lifetime coverage for medical and rehabilitation expenses, with no cap on how much can be paid out, must be specifically selected from a tiered system of options. The change was characterized by proponents as a way to reduce Michigan’s auto insurance rates.
However, because of a hotly disputed stance taken by insurance companies, people who suffered catastrophic injuries prior to the new law’s implementation are in a perilous position. People like Ms. Andary, who is a lead plaintiff in Andary v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company. Now in front of the Michigan Supreme Court, the outcome of that case will impact thousands of lives.
The central question in this case is whether the law applies retroactively to persons who were injured before its effective date, meaning that the care they were previously entitled to under the law can now be taken away. With an eye on the bottom line, that is what insurance companies say should happen. They are wrong.
The Legislature did not clearly show an intent for the 2019 law to take away the health care that people who were injured before the act’s effective date purchased and expected to be able to rely on. Consequently, any attempt to apply the new law retroactively would be illegal.
That is one of the arguments the ACLU of Michigan and a host of coalition partners made in an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief filed with the Michigan Supreme Court, urging justices to uphold an appellate court ruling that the new law should not be applied retroactively.
In a sense, it boils down to an issue of basic fairness.
None of us know whether we will be among the people who are involved in motor vehicle crashes or whether we will be among the people who are seriously injured in those crashes. But one thing people do know is whether they have obtained insurance that will protect them in case of catastrophic injury. Indeed, purchasing insurance is one of the few things that people can do in order to guard against the risk that they will be severely injured in a vehicle crash.
Services and benefits such as post-accident health care are essential to facilitating Michiganders’ lives and their equal citizenship, which the Michigan Constitution guarantees. Courts therefore cannot lightly infer that the Legislature snatched away such essential services and upended Michiganders’ lives in the process. It would withdraw the insurance coverage that accident victims purchased in order to protect themselves against the risk of catastrophic injuries; it would jeopardize the health care services that have sustained their lives and well-being since their catastrophic injuries; and it would upset their reasonable expectations that they could continue to rely on the care they purchased.
The Legislature did not clearly indicate an intent to pursue such an unsettling and destabilizing plan.
If applied retroactively, the new law would result in the withdraw critical care from persons who are living with severe disabilities that resulted from traumatic car accidents—care that allows them to continue living their lives and participate in society. It also has the potential to effectively force some people into institutional settings to the extent that the caps on insurance are not sufficient to cover the kinds of at-home care services that allow them to remain at home.
It is our hope that the Michigan Supreme Court upholds the rights of auto accident victims injured before 2019 and prohibits the new law from being applied retroactively.
Lives, and livelihoods, depend on it.
Dan Korobkin is the Legal Director at the ACLU of Michigan.