To domicile or not to domicile: Michigan Court of Appeals says it might be possible for a person to have no legal domicile

By Correy E. Stephenson Dolan Media Newswires Is it possible for an individual to move around so much that he or she does not have a legal domicile? According to the Michigan Court of Appeals, the answer is maybe. In the recent Tienda v. Integon National Insurance Co., the court looked at the intersection of the no-fault law with passengers injured in the vehicle of an insured migrant worker. Although Salvador Lorenzo had an insurance policy, he did not have a permanent residence in any state. Instead, he packed up all of his worldly belongings every few months and drove with fellow migrant workers from state to state, following the crops. Analyzing factors like Lorenzo's intent, the state where his license was issued and where he purchased his auto insurance, the court determined he did not have a permanent residence. But because Lorenzo was living in Michigan when the accident occurred there, the court determined he was a resident of the state. Kalamazoo-based Jonathan N. Jilek, who represented the plaintiffs, said the decision could have ramifications for parties other than migrant workers who do not have a clear domicile--snowbirds or children who live with multiple parents, for example. But Detroit-based Daniel S. Saylor, who represented one of the insurers involved in the case, disagreed. The vast majority of individuals have a domicile, he said and "case law galore" exists for parties with multiple residences. "A truly nomadic lifestyle is unique," Saylor said. From strawberries to blueberries and back Salvador Lorenzo, Gerardo Tienda and Silvia Gomez (and another friend, Heriberto Fernandez Castro) traveled together from state to state to harvest fruit. From October 2008 until May 2009, the group picked strawberries in Florida before driving to North Carolina to harvest blueberries until early July. From there, they drove Lorenzo's Ford Expedition to Michigan, where they rented an apartment in Grand Rapids and drove each day to an Allegan County farm to pick blueberries. En route to the apartment after work one night, the group got into a car accident. Integon Insurance Company, which had issued a North Carolina auto insurance policy to Lorenzo, initially paid no-fault benefits to Tienda and Gomez. But the company stopped, contending that Lorenzo was actually a Michigan resident and pursuant to the policy, it was only obligated to pay for injuries or property damage occurring in Michigan if the owner of the vehicle was a resident of another state. Tienda and Gomez--the plaintiffs in the suit--sought PIP benefits from Integon as well as through the Assigned Claims Facility, which assigned the claim to Titan Insurance Company. Integon filed a cross-claim against Titan, seeking a declaratory judgment that Titan was on the hook for benefits payments as well as seeking recoupment for the payments it had already made to the plaintiffs. A trial court judge held that Lorenzo's place of residence was "irrelevant" but chose Florida as his home state as he spent more time there than in other states. But on appeal, the court reversed, finding domicile relevant--albeit hard to pin down. The court found few published cases in Michigan addressing the residency of migrant agricultural workers and said that prior case law on domicile had limited application to his circumstances. "With regard to Lorenzo's intent, when he moved to Grand Rapids in early July 2009, Lorenzo had no intent to remain in Michigan permanently, but intended to make Grand Rapids his home until October. Thereafter, Lorenzo planned to continue, and did continue, to travel the same circuit between Michigan, Florida, and North Carolina, as he had done for several years," the court said, adding that "no evidence showed that Lorenzo had any other place of lodging, nor any other location at which he kept any belongings or had a room maintained for him." Lorenzo never had a bank account and cashed his checks at a liquor store near the blueberry farm when he was in Michigan. He received no bills at the Grand Rapids address, paid the landlord in cash and used a cellular phone with a prepaid card. The court said the length of time Lorenzo spent in one state or another did not matter, as he fully intended to leave and continue his circuit. "Indeed, when Lorenzo, or, for that matter, Tienda and Gomez, were asked where they would say they lived at the time of the accident, they each responded that they lived in Michigan or that their fixed address was in Michigan. Indeed, they could not respond otherwise because they had with them all of their worldly possessions and had no other place to call home," the court said. "It may appear that, given the nature of Lorenzo's itinerant lifestyle, his ties to Michigan appear as strong or as tenuous as his ties to North Carolina or Florida," the court acknowledged. But the court said that Lorenzo was a resident of Michigan as a matter of law, ruling that Titan was responsible for paying the plaintiffs' benefits. Deciding factor Saylor said the "deciding factor" for the court was Lorenzo's presence in Michigan at the time of the accident. "He clearly wasn't in Florida or North Carolina and although his roots were not very deep, he did have an apartment and was working here." In the typical dispute over domicile, the parties fight over two possible candidates, Saylor said, debating a variety of factors such as intent. What makes the Tienda case unusual was the lack of even one possible domicile, he explained. "Case law says that everyone must have a domicile," Saylor said. "This is the first case I've ever seen where that almost wasn't true." Published: Thu, May 9, 2013

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