Friday, December 4, 2009

Judge Fremont-Smith of the Superior Court holds that damages both did and may not have arisen out of use of a vehicle

In Leone v. Schwartz, 2009 WL 3416398, the plaintiff, Leone, was a police officer who responded to an accident in which Schwartz's car had crashed through a fence and some small trees. Leone alleged that as he approached the car on foot, he lost his balance and fell in an area that was covered with debris from the fence, broken tree limbs, and snow and ice.

Leone sued Schwartz's homeowner's insurer, Great Northern, and automobile insurer, Arbella. Judge Fremont-Smith held on summary judgment that there was no coverage under the homeowner's policy because the policy excludes "damages arising out of the . . . use . . . of any motorized land vehicle." He wrote:

The allegations are that Schwartz negligently drove his motor vehicle off a road and into a lawn, causing the plaintiff to investigate the accident scene and suffer a "slip and fall" injury. The only theory on which Schwartz could be held liable, then, is as a result of his allegedly negligent operation of a motor vehicle, for which the policy excludes coverage.

Judge Fremont-Smith then turned to the automobile policy, which provided coverage for "damage to people injured or killed in accidents if you or a household member is legally responsible for the accident." "Accident" is defined in the policy as "an unexpected, unintended event that caused bodily injury or property damages arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of an auto."

Although two paragraphs earlier Judge Fremont Smith had held that as a matter of law the accident arose out of the use of the car, he now wrote:

The fact that Schwartz's operation of a motor vehicle provides the only possible basis for his liability, so that Great Northern's motion must be allowed, does not necessarily mean that Arbella's motor vehicle policy provides coverage. It is true that, but for Scwartz's vehicle having gone off the road and onto a lawn, Leone would not even have been there. But this does not necessarily mean that Leone's injury arose out of Schwartz's operation of a vehicle. The vehicle was stationary when Leone arrived at the scene, and he has admitted that the yard in which he fell was covered by debris, snow, and ice. Even if the undisputed facts were to indicate that Schwartz was negligent in his operation of his vehicle, it is a disputed question of fact whether Leone's injuries arose out of Schwartz's use of his motor vehicle.

Judge Fremont-Smith concluded that if Leone fell on pieces of broken fence or other debris caused by the accident there would be coverage under the policy, but that if he slipped only on snow and ice or other debris that was not caused by the accident there would be no coverage.

I'm all for splitting hairs in interpreting insurance policies. I make my living doing it. But I do not see how the same opinion can hold as a matter of law that the damages arose out of the use of a vehicle and also hold that whether the injury arose out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the auto is a question of fact. In my opinion the judge can't have it both ways.

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