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Packing car for trip was use of motor vehicle

Where a gust of wind pushed a luggage cart into appellee while he was loading luggage into his car for a trip, his injuries arose “out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle,” and he was “‘in or upon, entering, or alighting from’ the vehicle when he was struck[.]”

The trial court correctly held appellant insurance company liable for appellee’s medical expenses.

Statement of the case

Appellee Estep had checked out of a hotel with his wife and began loading their car with luggage. A gust of wind pushed the cart Estep was using into him. He fell and was injured. He sought medical benefits from appellant United Services Automobile Association (USAA).

USSA claimed Estep’s policy did not cover his injuries. Estep sued. The trial court found that coverage was due and awarded Estep $30,000 in medical benefits.

“Because we agree with the court below that Estep’s injuries were sustained while he was using and occupying his car, we affirm.”

Issue on appeal

“USSA maintains that there was no coverage because (1) Estep’s injuries did not ‘ar[i]se out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle’ and (2) Estep was not ‘in or upon, entering, or alighting from’ the vehicle when he was struck. We disagree on both fronts. …

“Estep argues his accident arose out of the use of his car ‘as a car’ because he suffered his injuries while he was packing the vehicle before an imminent road trip.

“USAA in turn claims the accident did not arise out of ‘use’ of the car because there was no causal relationship between loading the trunk with bags and the luggage cart hitting him, as Estep could have been struck by the runaway luggage cart regardless of his proximity to the vehicle.”

Relevant law

“‘To [d]etermine when “use” and “occupancy” begin and end … “the critical inquiry is whether there was a causal relationship between the incident and the employment of the insured vehicle as a vehicle.”’ …

“Although the vehicle’s use ‘need not be the direct, proximate cause of the injury,’ in the strict legal sense, there must be a causal connection between the accident and the use of the vehicle as a vehicle. …

“Actual use of the vehicle as a vehicle is not restricted to its transportation function. … Moreover, the accident cannot be ‘merely incidental or tangential[]’ to the use of the vehicle. …

“And an injury does not arise out of use of a car when the accident is connected to a vehicle ‘only by a chronological sequence of events[]’ but ‘never one within the intendment of the parties to these insurance contracts.’”

Tangible nexus

“We agree with the circuit court that there was a tangible nexus between the luggage cart knocking down Estep and his use of the motor vehicle as a vehicle. …

“Simply put, transporting luggage is a valid and expected use of a vehicle, and one cannot transport the baggage without first packing the vehicle. Numerous cases from other jurisdictions have reached the conclusion that transporting cargo is germane to a car’s use. …

“While loading luggage is a legitimate and expected use of a vehicle, we still must find a requisite nexus to the accident for coverage to apply. …

“Under the facts of this case, Estep’s car was more than just the situs of the injury. Estep was using the insured vehicle for an intended purpose at the time of the accident – and the cart was present to assist in the intended use.

“Accordingly, this was not an incident unrelated to the vehicle that could have happened anywhere – it was a car-loading accident that occurred in a car-loading area and involved car-loading equipment. And it occurred in connection with an imminent drive home from a hotel. …

“When he was struck by the cart, Estep was not using the vehicle ‘in a manner foreign to its designed purpose.’ … Any insurance company would expect that an auto policy holder would use a car to transport luggage and would know the vehicle must be packed before the anticipated transit could proceed.”

Occupying the vehicle

“Having concluded that Estep’s injuries arose out of the use of the vehicle, we next consider whether he was ‘in or upon, entering or alighting from’ or otherwise ‘occupying’ his motor vehicle when the accident occurred. …

“Estep’s actions of loading his car with luggage and his plans to promptly leave the hotel were ‘relate[d] to his “‘occupying” it.’ … Estep’s actions also satisfy the physical proximity requirement, as his chest and head were inside the car.

“Nor was his contact with the car or its contents ‘merely incidental’ to an act unrelated to occupying the car[.] … Bending into the car to load luggage was related to his intent to get in the car and drive himself and his belongings back home.

“Estep’s physical presence halfway inside his car while engaging in conduct consistent with his occupancy of the car is sufficient to trigger coverage under his policy language. Estep was ‘upon’ the vehicle as he handled luggage inside it and placed his upper body within the vehicle. …

“In reviewing the unique facts of this case, we find that the policy term ‘upon’ is broad enough to encompass leaning into the interior of the vehicle’s trunk from the waist up and handling baggage therein.

“We agree with the trial court’s conclusion that Estep was ‘occupying’ his car under his USAA policy when he was injured by the rolling luggage cart.”


United Services Automobile Ass’n v. Estep, Record No. 0391-22-1, March 14, 2023. CAV (published opinion) (Friedman, O’Brien dissenting). From the Circuit Court of the City of Chesapeake (MacDonald). Todd M. Fiorella, Katherine M. Lennon for appellant. Scott V. Whitlow for appellee. VLW 023-7-108, 17 pp.