A carpenter hired to do trim work on a home under construction was not “using” his box van when he left it parked on the property, and he does not have coverage under his State Farm business auto policy for damage to the home from a fire that originated in the box van.
A Newport News U.S. District Court said the carpenter was “using” the van, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Va. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. on Feb. 2.
State and federal trial courts sometimes puzzle over what amount to “use” of a vehicle for policy coverage.
Investigative reports agreed the fire originated in the back of the van. None of the reports said the van itself caused the fire. The van had been parked on the homeowner’s property for about one month before the fire and was parked and locked at the time of the fire.
Carpenter John Robins first sought coverage under his CGL policy issued by Nationwide, but Nationwide denied liability under a policy exclusion. Under Robins’ State Farm business auto policy, the property damage – not the accident that caused the property damage – had to result from the ownership, maintenance, or use of the box van.
The appellate panel reversed the summary judgment ruling that the property damage arose from use of the van in an unpublished per curiam opinion.
It’s well settled, the panel said, that Virginia law requires “a causal relationship between the accident and employment of the insured motor vehicle as a vehicle.” The carpenter did indeed drive the vehicle to the job site.
At the time of the fire, however, “the van was not being used in any way commonly associated with the function of a vehicle,” but was being used as a “storage compartment or tool shed.” Even if the insurer knew the van had a specially-built cargo section, the carrier’s nevertheless was liable only for damage arising from the van’s use as a vehicle.