The U.S. District Court Defines South Carolina Law on Automotive Insurance Coverage.

Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Co. v. Trentcina Jeter and Carla M. Coulter

C/A No. 3:12-1759-MBS

June 18, 2013

In a recent case heard by the United States District Court, District of South Carolina, the Court had to decide whether the injuries complained of arose out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of the vehicle, a contractual requirement for the insurer to indemnify its insured.   The Court applied a three part test to determine an insurer’s liability: (1) there must be a causal connection between the vehicle and the injury; (2) no independent act breaks the causal link; and (3) the vehicle is being used for transportation at the time of the injury.

In this case, a female driver pepper sprayed her passenger while operating the vehicle due to a dispute that had arisen.  When the car came to a stop at the intersection, the victim exited the vehicle.  The driver again tried to assault the other with pepper spray through the window, though unsuccessfully.  The driver then stopped the car, exited, and continued to release the pepper spray towards the victim’s face.  The vehicle involved was insured by Nationwide.  The Court was posed with the issue as to whether the incident arose out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of the vehicle, thereby requiring the insurance company to indemnify the assaulter.   The Court ruled that it did not.

The Court found that there was not a causal connection between the vehicle and injury, therefore failing the first of the three prong test.  The car was the mere site of the assault, not an active accessory.  The assailant attacked the victim with pepper spray inside the moving vehicle as well as outside of the parked vehicle, demonstrating that the vehicle itself was not an instrumentality of the assault.  The Court also refused to accept the argument that the inescapability of a moving vehicle made it an active accessory, stating that to do so would essential carve out an exception to the general limitation that liability should not attach where a vehicle is the mere site of an injury.  Nationwide was relieved of any obligation to indemnify the assailant as the assault “was an act of independent significance that incidentally occurred within a vehicle.”

Author: Malena Dinwoodie, Stratos Law, LLC


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