A man who was injured while packing his car in a Fairfax County hotel parking lot after a gust of wind pushed a luggage cart into him will be covered by his auto insurance policy for his injuries.
The Court of Appeals of Virginia made the determination in United Services Automobile Association v. Estep (VLW 023-7-108), finding that Bruce Estep was injured “while he was using and occupying his car.”
“A central purpose of car insurance policies like the one Estep paid for with USAA is to provide medical benefits for injuries that occur while a policy holder is occupying his car and using it for one of its intended purposes,” Judge Frank K. Friedman noted. “We affirm the circuit court’s decision that Estep was ‘using’ and ‘occupying’ his vehicle when he was injured.”
Judge Doris Henderson Causey joined Friedman’s opinion.
Judge Mary Grace O’Brien dissented.
“Estep’s injures were not caused by an accident arising out of the use of his vehicle, and controlling authority from this Commonwealth compels a different result from that reached by the majority,” she wrote.
Bruce Estep and his wife checked out of a hotel in Fairfax County to return to their home in Chesapeake. Estep began loading bags into his car and planned to return to luggage cart to the hotel lobby after packing the car.
After loading items into the rear seats of the SUV, Estep began putting the remaining luggage in the vehicle’s trunk. In doing so, Estep “was ‘leaning into the rear of the vehicle, bent over at the waist and reaching into the vehicle, such that his body was in the vehicle from the waist up.’”
A gust of wind sent the luggage cart in motion, striking Estep on the right side and causing him to fall to the ground and sustain “serious” injuries. All told, Estep totaled more than $120,000 in medical bills and expenses of over $70,000.
Estep was insured under a Virginia personal automobile policy issued by United Services Automobile Association, or USAA, which included medical benefits coverage. He filed a complaint against the insurance company for $30,000, alleging USAA did not comply with the terms of the policy by refusing to pay his medical expenses.
Estep’s policy with USAA states that it will pay out medical expense benefits to an insured who sustains bodily injury in an accident “arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a motor vehicle.”
The Chesapeake Circuit Court denied USAA’s motion for summary judgment, ruling in favor of Estep for $30,000, plus interest and costs.
USAA appealed the ruling, arguing that there was no coverage because Estep’s injuries did not arise from the ownership, maintenance or use of the vehicle. Further, USAA, claimed Estep “was not ‘in or upon, entering, or alighting from’” the SUV when he was struck by the luggage cart.
Estep argued he was using the vehicle “as a car” because he was packing the vehicle prior to an imminent road trip. USAA countered that the injury did not arise from “use” of the vehicle, as Estep “could have been struck by the runaway luggage cart regardless of his proximity to the vehicle.”
Friedman agreed with Estep and the lower court’s ruling.
“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,” he wrote, adding that transporting luggage “is a valid and expected use of a vehicle,” necessitating packing the vehicle first.
Friedman further wrote that, here, the vehicle was more than merely the “situs” of an injury, in contrast with cases involving guns and assaults that USAA relied upon in its argument.
“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.”
— Judge Frank K. Friedman
“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,” Friedman wrote. “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.”
The judge explained that packing a vehicle is behavior that is typically foreseen by vehicle designers, manufacturer and parties to an insurance contract.
“When he was struck by the cart, Estep was not using the vehicle ‘in a manner foreign to its designed purpose,’” Friedman wrote. “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.”
Having met the first requirement, Friedman next looked to evaluate if Estep was “occupying” the vehicle when the injury occurred, as the USAA policy requires in order to pay medical coverage.
The judge determined that, under the policy’s language, Estep was occupying the vehicle.
“Estep’s physical presence halfway inside the car while engaging in conduct consistent with his occupancy of the car,” Friedman wrote. “Estep was ‘upon’ the vehicle as he handled luggage inside it and placed his upper body within the vehicle.”
The judge pointed out that the policy term “upon” is “broad enough” to include leaning into the interior of the vehicle and handling baggage.
Friedman affirmed the circuit court’s ruling that Estep was entitled to coverage under the policy because he was both “using” and “occupying” his vehicle under the language of the USAA policy. The judge also upheld the lower court’s award of $30,000 in medical benefits plus interest and costs to Estep.
While O’Brien agreed that Estep was occupying the vehicle when he was injured, she disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that his injuries arose from the use of the vehicle.
“In my view, the circumstances of the accident do not establish the requisite causal relationship ‘between the incident and the employment of the insured vehicle as a vehicle,’” she wrote.
O’Brien pointed out that the luggage cart being blown into Estep by a gust a wind was “‘merely incidental or tangential’ to his use of the vehicle’” and that the fact he was loading his SUV when injured does not make the accident “vehicle-caused.”
“Although Estep might not have been injured but for his loading luggage into the trunk of the vehicle, the requisite causal relationship is not established when the cause of the accident was an unlikely happenstance of nature — an external event not intrinsic to the use of the vehicle,” O’Brien wrote.
The judge added that, unlike in the Supreme Court of Virginia’s Edwards v. Government Employees Insurance Co. decision in 1998, where a man was injured while changing his vehicle’s flat tire, loading luggage into a car is “not essential to a vehicle’s use.”