A number of recent cases provide insight into the application and interpretation of auto use (or motor vehicle) exclusions generally present in a homeowner’s policy.
Auto use exclusions typically preclude coverage for injury or damage arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of motor vehicles. Courts have struggled with identifying bright-line rules for applying the auto use exclusion.
A Georgia court recently noted that “use of a motor vehicle” is generally not defined within a policy, and the court found an exact definition or bright-line standard to be “elusive.” See Hays v. Ga. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 722 S.E.2d 923 (Ga. App. 2012). Despite their lengthy analyses in search of a more precise standard, courts have generally resorted to common sense applications to determine if the use of the vehicle was causally connected to the loss.
The court in Hays, although confounded in its attempt to define “use of a vehicle,” was presented with one of the easier (and more entertaining) fact patterns. In Hays, two men devised a pulley system by which they would use their truck to hoist a portable toilet onto the top of a deer stand. As one man drove the truck to lift the toilet, the deer stand fell, injuring the other man. The court held that the injury was caused by the use of the truck. This determination was based on the proximity of the truck to the accident, the driver’s control of the truck, and the “plain and ordinary sense” of the term “use.”
Sunshine State Insurance Co. v. Jones, 77 So.3d 254 (Fla. App. 2012) presented a more challenging scenario. In Jones, four teenagers were driving when the teen in the passenger seat grabbed the steering wheel to “get a rise out of” the driver. When the driver attempted to swat the passenger’s hands away, she lost control of the car, which veered off the road and crashed. Both the passenger’s homeowner’s insurer and auto insurer disclaimed coverage.
The homeowner insurer argued the passenger’s conduct constituted the “use of an automobile.” The auto insurer disagreed and argued that the passenger’s horseplay was not the use of a vehicle. The court determined that the passenger’s grabbing of the steering wheel did not constitute a “use of the vehicle” because he did not attempt to “employ the car in a manner intended … or to exert control over the operation of the car.”
Auto use exclusions are not necessarily limited to vehicles in operation. Two other cases recently analyzed the “use” of parked vehicles under auto use exclusions in homeowner’s policies.
In State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Va. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 462 Fed. Appx. 414 (4th Cir. 2012), a van had been parked at a construction site for a month when it caught fire. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the term “use of a vehicle” required employment of the van as a vehicle. Because the van was not functioning as a vehicle when the fire occurred, the loss was not caused by the “use of a vehicle.”
However, in New London County Mut. Ins. Co. v. Nantes, 36 A.3d 224 (Conn. 2012), the Connecticut Supreme Court found a vehicle to be in use despite the fact that it was parked and had no occupants. In Nantes, a woman parked her running car in the garage overnight with the garage door closed. The carbon monoxide filled the house and poisoned her sleeping guests. The court determined the injuries were caused by the “use of a motor vehicle,” noting that “use of a vehicle,” according to natural and ordinary usage, is not limited to operation of the vehicle but includes the vehicle being parked.
Auto use exclusions do not lend themselves to bright-line tests based on vehicle location, operation, or movement, but rather are best applied using common sense.
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