Texas High Court Rules Against Insurer in Fleeing Truck Case

April 20, 2009

The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that an insurance company must pay a family’s claim over a child critically injured by a truck that was fleeing from police.

The child’s parents, Greg and Maribel Tanner, sued the speeder, who was insured by Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Co. But the company claimed motorist Richard Gibbons violated his policy by being involved in a high-speed police chase that was certain to end in a wreck.

Although a jury ruled in favor of the family, finding that Gibbons did not intentionally cause the Tanners’ injuries, the trial judge overruled that verdict, saying Nationwide didn’t have to defend the driver or cover him.

An appeals court also sided with Nationwide, but the state’s high court in Austin ruled that the jury’s verdict should stand, stating that Nationwide didn’t prove “as a matter of law that Gibbons believed his conduct was substantially certain to injure the Tanners.”

Calling the high-speed chase “not merely reckless but reprehensible,” the high court said it could have ended any number of ways, including with Gibbons rolling his pickup truck, hitting a fixed object, with police stopping his truck or even discontinuing their pursuit instead of crashing into the Tanners.

“I’m really pleased. I think it’s a very well-reasoned opinion,” said the Tanners’ attorney, Don Cotton. “I’m very happy obviously for my clients.”

Although the Tanners, who recently moved from Fredericksburg, Texas, to Utah, must return to court to get a damage amount awarded, the high court’s ruling means Nationwide will cover it, Cotton said.

Nationwide spokesman Eric Hardgrove said in a statement the company intends to honor the court’s ruling.

“We’re glad the high court has resolved the issue of whether a high-speed chase falls within the ‘intentional acts’ exclusion in Texas,” Hardgrove said.

Gibbons, whose speed at times topped 100 mph, collided with the Tanners’ family car as it rolled into an intersection in a rural area outside San Marcos in 1999. Gibbons slammed on his brakes but couldn’t avoid the crash.

All four Tanners were hurt, but 7-year-old Roney Tanner sustained the most serious injuries to his head, shoulder and arm, Cotton said.

In a coma-like state for several days, Roney endured a month-long hospital stay and years of physical therapy.

When the boy’s parents sued Gibbons, they hoped his $300,000 policy through Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide would pay for their son’s medical bills. The company refused to pay the Tanners, saying Gibbons violated his insurance contract when he led police on a chase that was foreseeable to end in a wreck.

At issue was how to interpret Gibbons’ insurance policy, which included a standard intentional acts exclusion. The clause voids coverage if the driver deliberately causes an accident.

Gibbons bought his policy in Ohio, a state that has a wider definition of “intentional” than Texas. Ohio’s exclusion voids coverage for “willful acts” that the driver “ought to know” will result in an accident.

Nationwide contended Gibbons should have known that disregarding traffic signals and signs during a police chase would eventually lead to a serious accident.

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