A car accident caused by a box left on the road by a “ghost” vehicle is enough to invoke an insurance policy’s uninsured motorist coverage, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
Assuming that a box in the middle of the road could only have landed there by falling off of a car, the three-judge panel was able to reach the case’s main question of whether plaintiff Larry G. Squires’ injuries from hitting the box with his car arose “out of the ownership, maintenance or use of an uninsured auto,” as required by his policy to collect UM benefits.
In reversing the Western District of Pennsylvania in Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Squires , Senior Judge Morton I. Greenberg said for the 3rd Circuit panel that Squires could be due UM benefits.
While no Pennsylvania appellate court has addressed a case with a similar fact pattern, Greenberg said the state’s courts that have interpreted the “arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of” section of insurance policies have found “arising out of” means “causally connected with, not proximately caused by.” While Squires may have to prove at trial that the box he hit did in fact fall from a car, all he has to prove to invoke the UM clause of his policy at this stage, Greenberg said, is whether the unidentified vehicle’s use was a “but-for” cause of his injuries.
Greenberg recognized that Pennsylvania intermediate appellate courts have broadly ruled that injuries caused by “an instrumentality or external force” other than the car itself should not be viewed as invoking the “arising out of” language.
The trial court had relied on one of those cases from the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Smith v. United Services Automobile Association , in denying Squires UM benefits.
In Smith , a bicyclist crashed into a tree after a boy sitting on a tractor-pulled wagon driving by threw hay in the bicyclist’s face. The biker sued his insurer for uninsured motorist coverage given the tractor was not covered. He was denied UM benefits, however, after the court held there was no causal connection between the vehicle and the injury, which the court said was caused by a third party.
The district court in Squires relied on Smith , finding the instrumentality that caused Squires’ injuries was a box, not a car.
“We think, however, that Smith is distinguishable from this case, and, when faced with a set of facts similar to those here, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would hold that Squires’ accident arose ‘out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured auto,’” Greenberg said. “As Squires points out, Smith concerned the intentional intervening act of a third party: a person throwing hay from the back of a vehicle.”
The unidentified vehicle assumed to have dropped the box on the road in Squires’ case had more than incidental involvement in Squires’ injuries, the judge said. Transporting boxes or other cargo is a common use of a vehicle, Greenberg said, finding the accident was a “direct consequence of the use of the vehicle for its intended purpose, for as is sometimes said in another context, things ‘fall off the truck.’”
While knowing what object directly caused an accident is relevant to a causation analysis, Greenberg said it is not dispositive and does not prevent the possibility that the accident arose out of the use of a vehicle. He pointed out that there could be two or more causes of an accident.
Physical contact with an uninsured vehicle is not required for an accident to “arise out of” the use of an uninsured vehicle, Greenberg said.
The judge also noted that Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law should be liberally construed to provide the greatest possible coverage to injured claimants. Close cases should go in favor of the claimant, Greenberg said.
“Thus, even though we recognize this case is close, we think that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would reach the result that we reach,” Greenberg said.
He added in a footnote to that statement that the court’s opinion is a narrow one.
“After all, we have decided the case on the basis of an assumed set of facts and it is entirely possible that in further proceedings … the facts may appear to be quite different,” he said.
Judges Dolores K. Sloviter and Thomas I. Vanaskie joined Greenberg in the decision.
Edward A. Shenderovich of Shenderovich Shenderovich & Fishman in Pittsburgh represented Squires in the case. R. Sean O’Connell of Robb Leonard Mulvihill represented Allstate.
Shenderovich said he thinks this case will have an impact on future cases given what he said was the surprising fact that the state Supreme Court has never addressed the intersection of UM benefits and cargo or other objects falling from a vehicle.
He said his client won this part of the battle and now must prove at the district court that the box did in fact fall from a car and that it was negligently done. Shenderovich said Allstate conceded the box fell from a car solely for purposes of the argument before the 3rd Circuit.
(Copies of the 21-page opinion in Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Squires , PICS No. 12-0254, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly . Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.)