Michigan residents who were catastrophically injured in car wrecks before the summer of 2019 can continue to bill insurance companies for ongoing care, the state Supreme Court said Monday in a decision that provides critical relief for thousands of people.
For decades, people injured in crashes were entitled to lifetime payment for “all reasonable charges” related to care and rehabilitation. But a new state law set a fee schedule and a cap on reimbursements not covered by Medicare. Suddenly, 18,000 people already receiving long-term benefits were at risk of losing them.
But in a 5-2 opinion, the Supreme Court said a “vested contractual right” to ongoing benefits “cannot be stripped away or diminished,” especially when lawmakers failed to declare an intent to do so when they changed the law.
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The decision was written by Justice Elizabeth Welch, a Democrat, and joined by other Democratic justices and Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, a Republican.
The catastrophically injured include hockey star Vladimir Konstantinov, a former member of the Detroit Red Wings, who requires 24/7 care. He suffered severe brain damage in 1997 when a drunken limousine driver crashed the car he was traveling in, following the team’s championship.
In an effort to lower Michigan’s insurance rates, which were among the highest in the U.S., the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agreed to sweeping changes in 2019. Drivers can save money by choosing certain injury-coverage options.
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In a dissent, Justice David Viviano said the court’s majority crafted an opinion based on “vague and disputed concepts” to provide cover for those who simply believe it would be unfair to reduce future benefits for the long-term injured.
“As a result, the efforts of the Legislature and the governor to reduce costs and make insurance more affordable for all the residents of our state will not come to fruition for many decades,” said Viviano, who was joined by fellow Republican Justice Brian Zahra.
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“If courts cannot be trusted to faithfully interpret and apply the laws, especially those involving such significant and contested topics, then the democratic process is in peril,” Viviano said.