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Vol. 9 - Issue 5
July 16, 2020


Who Doesn’t Love A Good “Use Of An Auto” Case


I have said this many times.  “Use of an auto” is not that hard to understand.  It means getting behind the wheel of a car and motoring from point A to point B.  So if there is a dispute whether an injury has arisen out of the “use of an auto” [for satisfying the Auto policy insuring agreement or CGL auto exclusion] it must involve something more than someone getting behind the wheel of a car and motoring from point A to point B. 
For that reason, cases addressing “use of an auto” have a way of involving bizarre facts.  Enter Haskell v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., No. 19-401 (Me. June 11, 2020), where a very intoxicated passenger exited a vehicle before breaking into a home and inflicting harm.  This lead to the question whether negligently assisting a drunk friend’s mishaps outside a car is the same thing as negligently causing harm through the car itself?

Grover Bragg drove his intoxicated and delusional friend in his truck, which was insured by State Farm. Bragg’s friend jumped out of the car while it was still moving and then broke into a house owned by plaintiffs Haskell and Witham. After damaging their property, he got back into the bed of the truck before shortly going back into the house and assaulting and injuring Witham.

Bragg’s failure to timely answer the ensuing lawsuit resulted in a default judgment. Bragg and his friend were held liable for $428,000 in damages, affirmed on appeal. The Maine Superior Court also entered summary judgment for State Farm and held that Bragg’s conduct was outside the scope of the vehicle’s insurance policy.

In appealing to the Supreme Court of Maine, Haskell and Witham argued that the incident was an “accident that involves a vehicle” per Bragg’s insurance policy with State Farm, raising the frequently messy “use of an auto” issue -- one that primarily turns upon causation. The Court stated that proximate cause is not necessary, as “coverage will be extended if there is a reasonable causal connection between the use and the injury.”

Using the example from a prior Maine case that a dog bite is not “use of an auto” just because it occurs in a car, the Court emphasized the term “involving.” While not limiting auto accidents merely to car crashes and collisions, the vehicle must in some form link to the injury. The Court was also persuaded by cases from other circuits, which almost unanimously reject the notion that injuries from a physical assault, especially one that occurs outside of the vehicle, have a causal relationship with the use of a vehicle in such situations.

Cases with causation between the vehicle and the injuries usually involve violence being perpetrated from a moving vehicle, such as shooting while in the car. The Court distinguished such cases from those where a car merely transports someone to somewhere where they commit harm. Therefore, Bragg’s friend damaging the property and assaulting Witham did not “involve” Bragg’s vehicle. Regardless of the lower courts’ findings that Bragg was negligent in driving his friend, the Court deemed the damages unrelated to his vehicle and therefore not subject to the coverage of his policy with State Farm. Bragg may have been negligent, but his liability was not the type for which State Farm contracted to insure him.

The Court affirmed the judgment of the Superior Court. In doing so, it made clear that an auto accident is “an unintended and unforeseen injurious consequence involving an automobile,” not something where the perpetrator was transported by automobile. 

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