State Farm Fire and Cas. Co. v. Old Republic Ins. Co.

Decision Date29 May 2002
Docket NumberDocket No. 117470, Calendar No. 2.
PartiesSTATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY, COMPANY, a Foreign Corporation, as Subrogee of Ibrahim Mroue doing business as Family Bakery, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. OLD REPUBLIC INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Patrick, Johnson & Mott, P.C. (by Paul H. Johnson, Jr., Stacey L. Heinonen, and Ellen C. Busch), Southfield, MI, for the plaintiff-appellee.

James R. Stegman, Bingham Farms, MI, for the defendant-appellant.

CORRIGAN, C.J.

We granted leave to appeal to consider whether the "household exclusion" provision of M.C.L. § 500.3123 applies where a person owning damaged property is insured under a no-fault property protection policy that does not cover the vehicle that person was operating at the time of the accident. We hold that the exclusion applies in those circumstances. We thus reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the circuit court for further proceedings.

I. Underlying Facts and Procedural History

Ibrahim Mroue drove a rented Ryder truck into a bakery that he owned, causing damage to real and personal property. The Ryder truck was insured under a no-fault policy issued by defendant Old Republic Insurance Company. Plaintiff State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, the insurer of the real property, paid Mroue for the damages. As Mroue's subrogee, State Farm filed this action seeking indemnification from Old Republic for the amount that State Farm had paid to Mroue.

A no-fault insurer's liability to pay property protection benefits to its insured is subject to exceptions, including M.C.L. § 500.3123(1)(b), the "household exclusion," which provides:

(1) Damage to the following kinds of property is excluded from property protection insurance benefits:

* * *

(b) Property owned by a person named in a property protection insurance policy, the person's spouse or a relative of either domiciled in the same household, if the person named, the person's spouse, or the relative was the owner, registrant, or operator of a vehicle involved in the motor vehicle accident out of which the property damage arose. [Emphasis added.]

The circuit court granted summary disposition for Old Republic on the ground that Mroue, the owner of the real property, was a named insured in the Old Republic policy. Thus, since Mroue could not recover, State Farm could not recover as his subrogee.

The Court of Appeals reversed,1 holding that the exclusion in M.C.L § 500.3123(1)(b) did not apply because Mroue was not a named insured in the Old Republic policy. Old Republic appealed, and we remanded to the Court of Appeals for reconsideration. Our order directed the Court to consider whether M.C.L. § 500.3123(1)(b) excluded coverage only if a property protection insurance policy covered a "vehicle involved in the motor vehicle accident out of which the property damage arose," or if the statute precluded coverage regardless of whether the vehicle insured under a property protection insurance policy was involved in the accident.2

On remand, the Court of Appeals again reversed. It concluded that the phrase "by a person named in a property protection insurance policy" refers to the policy on the vehicle or vehicles involved in the accident. The Court stated that the use of the article "a" was not significant and that the grammatical construction of the sentence dictated the use of the article "a."3

II. Standard of Review

This case requires us to ascertain the meaning and proper application of M.C.L. § 500.3123(1)(b). Issues of statutory interpretation are questions of law that we review de novo. Oade v. Jackson Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 465 Mich. 244, 250, 632 N.W.2d 126 (2001); Donajkowski v. Alpena Power Co., 460 Mich. 243, 248, 596 N.W.2d 574 (1999).

III. Principles of Statutory Interpretation

When interpreting statutory language, we must ascertain the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the words expressed in the statute. Wickens v. Oakwood Healthcare System, 465 Mich. 53, 60, 631 N.W.2d 686 (2001). When the Legislature has unambiguously conveyed its intent in a statute, the statute speaks for itself, and judicial construction is not permitted. Huggett v. Dep't of Natural Resources, 464 Mich. 711, 717, 629 N.W.2d 915 (2001); Donajkowski, supra at 248, 596 N.W.2d 574. Because the proper role of the judiciary is to interpret and not to write the law, courts do not have authority to venture beyond the unambiguous text of a statute.

Courts must give effect to every word, phrase, and clause in a statute and avoid an interpretation that would render any part of the statute surplusage or nugatory. Wickens, supra at 60, 631 N.W.2d 686. Further, we give undefined statutory terms their plain and ordinary meanings. Donajkowski, supra at 248-249, 596 N.W.2d 574; Oakland Co. Rd. Comm'rs v. Michigan Property & Casualty Guaranty Ass'n, 456 Mich. 590, 604, 575 N.W.2d 751 (1998).

IV. Analysis

MCL 500.3123(1)(b) excludes property damage from no-fault property protection coverage if the property owner, the person's spouse, or a relative of either residing in the same household, is "named in a property protection insurance policy" and was "the owner, registrant, or operator of a vehicle involved" in the accident. Contrary to the Court of Appeals decision and the dissent's contention, the statute does not require that the individual be named in a property protection insurance policy covering "a vehicle involved in the motor vehicle accident out of which the property damage arose." 242 Mich.App at 109, 617 N.W.2d 715. Rather, the plain meaning of M.C.L. § 500.3123(1)(b) indicates that if Mroue was named in a property protection insurance policy and was the "operator of a vehicle involved" in the accident, coverage for damage to his property would be excluded. Whether the no-fault policy covered a vehicle involved in the accident is not relevant under the plain language of the statute. Therefore, if Mroue was named in a no-fault policy covering, for example, a personal vehicle, the statute would exclude property protection coverage. Stated another way, M.C.L. § 500.3123(1)(b) allows a party in Mroue's circumstances to recover from the rental vehicle's insurer only if he was not named in a no-fault policy.

Like the Court of Appeals, our dissenting colleagues would essentially rewrite the statutory phrase "named in a property protection insurance policy" to state, "named in the property protection insurance policy." Thus, the dissent does not give effect to the distinct meanings of the words "a" and "the." In Robinson v. Detroit, 462 Mich. 439, 461-462, 613 N.W.2d 307 (2000), we overruled Dedes v. Asch, 446 Mich. 99, 521 N.W.2d 488 (1994), an earlier case that had misconstrued "the" to mean "a." We explained in Robinson that

(1) common English usage,
(2) the rules of statutory construction enacted by our Legislature,4 and
(3) the assumption of legislator competence and comprehension that all courts should apply to acts of the Legislature,

make clear that a difference exists between the indefinite article "a" and the definite article "the."5 We presume that the Legislature understood the distinct meanings of these terms. We are not free to conflate their meanings.

The Court of Appeals and the dissent's reasoning that the grammatical construction of the sentence in the statute mandated the use of "a" instead of "the" is flawed. The Legislature chose the specific construction of the sentence and was not bound by any particular language or structure. If the Legislature had intended to use the definite article "the" instead of the indefinite article "a," it could have simply changed the construction of the sentence. It is untenable that the Legislature intended a meaning other than that plainly expressed because it somehow felt itself confined to the particular grammatical construction utilized.

Our dissenting colleagues further contend, without citing any authority, that the phrase "a person named in a ... policy" is clearly linked to the subsequent phrase "[the] operator of a vehicle involved in the motor vehicle accident." They contend that the text would be rendered mere surplusage if the above phrases were not linked. The phrase "involved in the motor vehicle accident," however, follows the term "vehicle" and clearly modifies that term. Nothing in the text of the statute suggests that the phrase "involved in the motor vehicle accident" modifies the phrase "a property protection insurance policy." The dissent essentially rewrites the statute by reading the language "a property protection insurance policy" as stating "a property protection insurance policy covering a vehicle involved in the motor vehicle accident."

It is not the role of the judiciary to second-guess the wisdom of a legislative policy choice; our constitutional obligation is to interpret—not to rewrite—the law. The Legislature apparently determined that where the household exclusion applies, damaged property should be covered, if at all, by a form of insurance other than a mandatory no-fault policy. Not only does our interpretation of the statute comport with the plain language of the text, but it is also consistent with the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the text, i.e., to preclude a person who damages his own property from collecting property protection insurance benefits under that person's no-fault policy. In this case, the property damage clearly would have been excluded if Mroue had been driving his own vehicle. The result should not be different merely because he was driving a rented one.

We acknowledge that our interpretation of the statute would allow a party in Mroue's circumstances to recover from an insurer in Old Republic's circumstances where that party does not have another no-fault policy, but would prevent recovery where he does. While such a factor might be...

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