Your uninsured/underinsured coverage on your automobile policy is designed to provide coverage for injuries that arise out of the operation, maintenance, or use of an uninsured or underinsured vehicle. But what exactly does that mean?
In most situations, it is fairly clear when this coverage applies. For example, if you’re in an accident with an individual where the other driver is at fault but the other driver either doesn’t have insurance or doesn’t have enough insurance to cover all of your damages, your uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage will be available to cover your damages. However, what if the facts are less straightforward? What are the limitations of this coverage?
At the end of 2014, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico addressed one aspect of the boundaries and applicability of underinsured motorist coverage. The Court reviewed whether underinsured motorist coverage could apply to a child who was outside a vehicle but bitten by a dog that was inside the vehicle.
The dog owner’s vehicle was underinsured, which meant that the owner did not have enough insurance to cover all of the child’s damages. However, the child’s parents had an automobile insurance policy that included uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage.
After maxing out the dog owner’s automobile liability insurance, the child and her parents made a claim under their underinsured motorist portion of their own policy. However, their underinsured insurance carrier, State Farm, argued that this situation was outside the protection of the policy and denied the claim.
State Farm conceded that the dog owner was underinsured, but argued that the injury to the child did not arise out of the operation, maintenance, or use of an underinsured vehicle. Specifically, the car was parked and not in motion at the time of the incident. Further, State Farm argued that the car served only as the location of the incident, and the use of the car did not contribute to the incident. Therefore, State Farm took the position that the underinsured motorist coverage was unavailable.
Ultimately the Court would decide the underinsured issue. To do so the Court needed to determine whether this dog bite was or was not an incident that arose out of the “use of the vehicle.” In its analysis the Court relied on a three part test.
- Whether there is a sufficient causal nexus between the use of the uninsured/underinsured vehicle and the resulting harm, e.g. the vehicle must be an active accessory in causing an injury.
- Whether an act of independent significance broke the causal link between the use of the vehicle and the harm suffered.
- Whether the use to which the vehicle was put was a normal use of that vehicle.
In looking at whether or not the vehicle was an “active accessory” in causing the dog bite, the Court reviewed the specific facts. In particular, the Court found that although the vehicle was parked with the dog inside, the dog owner intended to transport the dog to her parents’ house as part of this trip. Thus, at least part of the purpose of the trip was to transport the dog. Additionally, witnesses testified that dogs are particularly protective of their vehicles, and that being in the vehicle made this dog feel threatened and territorial. Also, the height of the vehicle placed the dog’s face at the height of the child’s face. Therefore, the unique setting of the vehicle led to the bite.
The Court ultimately ruled that the underinsured motorist coverage was available to compensate for the child’s injuries.
Although every case will not mirror these specific facts, there are many situations where the reasoning may be applicable and underinsured or uninsured coverage may be available. It is critical to get an attorney who understands the different insurance policies and coverages available for a particular incident, and who is willing to do the work to investigate all aspects of your injury claim.
1Britt v. Phoenix Indem. Ins. Co., 1995 – NMSC – 075, ¶ 15, 120 N.M. 831, 907 P. 2d 994 (citations omitted).