What is "Use" of a Motor Vehicle? II
Prof. Bill Long 11/13/06
Two Other Jurisdictions: NC and NJ
We saw in the previous essay that what was necessary to trigger coverage for a person injured through the actions of an uninsured motorist was the establishment of a causal connection between the injury and the use of the uninsured vehicle. What constitutes this causal connection may be rather fuzzy, as can be seen by the following case.
2. Nationwide Mutual Ins. Co v. Webb, 512 SE2d 764 (NC App 1999). Let's begin with the Court of Appeals statement of facts.
"Just prior to this incident, Samuel Chad Leigh and two other boys rode their mountain bikes along a roadway when they observed an automobile approaching them. Kevin Webb drove the automobile with the consent of its owner, Lisa Michelle Webb, while William Sprouse rode in the back seat. As Kevin Webb drove the automobile past the boys, he leaned forward in his seat allowing Sprouse the opportunity to intentionally throw a soda bottle at the boys. The bottle struck Leigh in the eye. Leigh brought an action for his injuries against Kevin Webb, Sprouse, and Lisa Webb. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, the insurer of the automobile, provided a defense for the defendants under a reservation of rights. The trial resulted in a verdict favoring Leigh in the amount of $37,000.00."
Thus, at trial, verdict was entered for Leigh, the injured mountain bike rider. The insurer then brought a declaratory judgment action regarding coverage and the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Leigh. On appeal, the court reversed the insurance judgment in favor of Leigh. Why? Read on.
Causal Connection in North Carolina
The language of the liability section of the policy issued by Nationwide provided: "We will pay damages for bodily injury or property damage for which any insured becomes responsible because of an auto accident." This language is identical to the ISO policy language in our textbook. But, the court hastened to add, the state's Financial Responsibility Act, which is written into every automobile liability policy, required insurers to "insure...persons in lawful possession, against loss from the liability imposed by law for damages arising out of the ownership maintenance or use of such motor vehicle." Thus, the policy had to be construed in conjunction with the statute. As in the Cole case, then, the court had to construe what the "use" of the motor vehicle entailed.
NC's principle of law is identical to that of CO: "the test is whether there is a causal connection between the use of the automobile and the accident." Was there, then, a causal connection between the use of the car and Leigh's eye injury?
As with the CO court, the NC court went through a series of precedents. A 1994 case (the Providence case, 445 SE2d 418) had the following facts: "a bicyclist was hit by a beer can that was intentionally thrown from a moving vehicle. We found no causal connection between the bicyclist's injuries and the use of the automobile because the automobile was merely the situs of the assault."
Things Get Stranger
One could be pretty sure that the CO court would have concluded there was a causal connection in the Providence case. But then the NC court cited other cases, this time of people being shot from moving vehicles. In both cases, where passersby were shot, "we held...that the discharge of firearms did not arise out of the use of automobiles." But then, shortly after those two cases were decided, the Supreme Court of NC decided State Capital and concluded that an automobile policy covered injuries suffered by a third person when a rifle accidentally discharged while being removed by the insured from a pickup. 350 SE2d at 66. What is the court's rationale?
"The transportation of firearms is an ordinary and customary use of a motor vehicle, especially pickup trucks. In addition, use of an automobile includes its loading and unloading."
I suppose that everyone knows that pickups carry weapons. Thus, when one accidentally discharged, wounding a person, this would be within the customary use of a pickup. But the earlier gun cases were distinguished: "on the ground that those...cases dealt with injuries caused by activities not ordinarily associated with the use of automobiles." That is, since people don't normally shoot people from vehicles, no coverage, but since ammo is normally carried in pickups, when it accidentally goes off and hurts someone, there is coverage. Clear?
With this kind of reasoning there is probably little surprise when the court concluded that Leigh could not sustain his claim against Nationwide because his injury resulted from something "wholly dissociated from, independent of, and remote from the [vehicle's] normal use."
Thus, the emphasis of the NC court was on the "normal" use of the vehicle. If the harm arose from that normal use, then it would arise from the "use" of a vehicle and the injured party would be compensated by the liability insurance provider. But since it isn't "normal" to go around shooting people from vehicles, or throwing things from vehicles, the court concluded that no coverage for the injured party would result under the automobile liability policy. Coverage would have to be secured either through the medical payments portion of the injured person's auto policy, his/her own health insurance or through whatever recovery could be gained in a tort suit against he tortfeasor.
Let's turn to one more jurisdiction, New Jersey, to see how their courts have handled the issue.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long