An “occupant” of a motor vehicle who is injured during the operation of a wheelchair lift, a mover is injured unloading a truck, a person pumping gas or working alongside a car are examples which could be considered in the “use and maintenance of a motor vehicle” and require motor vehicle insurance coverage. This article explains the law on the duty for an insurance carrier to provide insurance coverage when the persons involved are not actually in the car.
Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (“MVFRL”) provides:
An insurer issuing or delivering liability insurance policies covering any motor vehicle of the type required to be registered under this title, except recreational vehicles not intended for highway use, motorcycles, motor-driven cycles or motorized pedal cycles or like type vehicles, registered and operated in this Commonwealth, shall make available for purchase first party benefits with respect to injury arising out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle . . .
75 Pa. Stat. and Cons. Stat. Ann. § 1712 (West 2016). In examining the definition of the “use and maintenance of a motor vehicle,” courts have found that the mere fact that a motor vehicle is the place where injuries are sustained is insufficient to establish a causal connection between the use of the vehicle and the injuries so as to require payment of first party benefits. See Alvarino v. Allstate Insurance Company, 537 A.2d 18, 21 (Pa. Super. 1988). Courts have further found that the causal connection need not rise to the level of proximate causation, but that some connection must exist between the motor vehicle and the victim’s injuries. See Roach v. Port Auth. of Allegheny Cty., 550 A.2d 1346, 1350 (Pa. Super. 1988). The connection must be more than mere happenstance. Id.
In one case, a passenger on a bus was injured when a fight broke out between two other bus passengers. See Roach v. Port Auth. of Allegheny Cty., 550 A.2d 1346, 1348 (Pa. Super. 1988). There, the court found that the mere fact that the bus was the site where the injuries were sustained failed to establish the requisite causal connection between the maintenance and use of the motor vehicle and the injuries. Id. at 1350. The court ultimately held that a bus passenger who is injured as a result of a fight between two other passengers is not entitled to insurance coverage under the provisions of the MVFRL. Id. In another similar case, a motor vehicle occupant was injured when a hunter mistook the occupant’s vehicle as a deer and shot at the car. See Howe v. Harleysville Ins. Companies, 459 A.2d 412, 413 (Pa. Super. 1983). In considering whether the victim’s injuries arose out of the use and maintenance of the motor vehicle, the court looked to whether there was a causal connection amounting to more than mere chance or happenstance between the injuries sustained and the insured vehicle. Id. at 413. The court in this case similarly held that the connection between the injury and the insured vehicle was nothing more than mere chance or happenstance. Id. at 414.
Under Pennsylvania law, interpretation of the word “occupying” in motor vehicle insurance policies focuses on whether the person claiming benefits is performing an act normally associated with the use of the vehicle. See Utica Mut. Ins. Co. v Constriciane, 473 A.2d 1005, 1009 (Pa. 1984). In Utica, the victim was operating a vehicle owned by his employer when he was involved in a minor car accident. Id. at 1006. When the victim was giving his information to the responding police officer, who was situated approximately 97 feet away from the victim’s vehicle, the victim was struck and killed by another vehicle. Id. at 1007. The Utica court held that “when a person is engaged in the lawful use of an insured vehicle, he will be considered to be ‘occupying’ that vehicle within the meaning of the policy” when four criteria are met. Id. at 1009. Those criteria are as follows:
(1) there is a causal relation or connection between the injury and the use of the insured vehicle;
(2) the person asserting coverage must be in a reasonably close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle, although the person need not be actually touching it;
(3) the person must be vehicle oriented rather than highway or sidewalk oriented at the time; and
(4) the person must also be engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle at the time.
Id. at 1009. The Utica court established the general principle that an insured who is engaged in an activity related to the use of his car is “occupying” the car despite the fact that he may not be in the vehicle itself or physically touching it.
Several courts have broadly construed these criteria. For instance, the Third Circuit has held that a tow truck driver who was injured while walking from his tow truck to a disabled vehicle was “occupying” his tow truck for purposes of his insurance coverage. See Lynn v. Westport Ins. Corp., 158 Fed. Appx. 438 (3d. Cir. 2007). For the third criterion, in determining whether a person is vehicle oriented rather than highway or sidewalk oriented, courts have found that he or she continues to occupy the motor vehicle until he or she severs all connection with it. See Downing v. Harleysville Ins. Co., 21, 602 A.2d 871, 873 (Pa. Super. 1992). Until such a person is on his or her own without reference to the vehicle, the person has not ceased to be a passenger or occupant.” Id. One court has accordingly held that when a passenger purposefully left the vehicle in order to help a friend whose truck had become disabled, the passenger was no longer vehicle oriented. See Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Kemper Ins. Co., 657 F.Supp. 213 (E.D. Pa. 1987). In considering the fourth criterion, another court has held that “[w]here the individual was engaged in an activity normally associated with or essential to the use of the insured vehicle, [Pennsylvania] courts have uniformly held that the individual was vehicle oriented,” thus satisfying the fourth criterion. See Stonington Ins. Co. v. Dardas, No. CIV.A. 09-5765, 2010 WL 2853916, at *4 (E.D. Pa. July 20, 2010).
In showing an analysis of the above law, let’s use the one example, a client who was injured when she was being unloaded from a van by use of a wheelchair lift. Essential to the determination of whether the client’s injuries will be covered by the van’s personal injury protection (“PIP”) benefits is deciding if the operation of the van lift is synonymous with the maintenance and use of the van itself. Arguably, the client sustained her injuries in an incident that was more than just chance or happenstance. Rather, the purpose of the client being in this particular van was that it had the capability of transporting a handicapped individual. As such, there is a causal connection between the client’s injuries and the use of the insured vehicle, as the vehicle was being used to transport a handicapped individual. Further, the client was in close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle, as she was right outside of the vehicle when the injuries occurred. The client was arguably still vehicle oriented at the time the incident occurred, as she had not purposefully exited the vehicle, but rather the van lift operator prematurely dispensed her, thus causing her injuries. Such a circumstance is distinguishable from cases in which the passenger was found to be highway oriented, where, for instance, the person purposefully left his or her vehicle. Finally, the client was engaged in an activity essential to the use of the insured vehicle, as she was being transported by a vehicle with the capability of transporting handicapped individuals. This is similar to the case where the tow truck driver was said to be engaged in an activity essential to the use of the insured vehicle when he was injured while he was walking over to a disabled vehicle. As such, because the primary purpose of the client being in this particular vehicle was so she could be transported in a vehicle with handicapped capabilities, she was engaged in a transaction essential to the use of this particular vehicle when her injuries occurred.
Of course, all of the above is just a Plaintiff’s counsel perspective on whether there should be coverage for a person outside. The one thing is clear, the analysis of the same can apply in a million different scenarios and unless there is already a case on point, the determination of whether there is insurance coverage will take a detailed analysis and will be decided on a case by case review.