Viewpoint: Vehicle Need Not Be in Motion for Accident to Occur, Miss. Supreme Ct. Rules

By Jordan Plitt | August 2, 2022

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in April, on first impression, that an automobile did not need to be in motion for an “auto accident” to occur. In Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Co. v. Powell, the court ruled that an automobile accident had occurred involving a covered auto under the Farm Bureau policy, even though the covered auto was not in motion when the accident occurred.

Under the facts of the case, claimant Trent Craft accidently fell on a trailer owned and used by insured Anthony Powell. The trailer was hitched to a pick-up truck owned and used by Powell. Powell was insured by Farm Bureau at the time of the accident. Powell had driven the insured pick-up truck and trailer loaded with scaffolding to a job site. The scaffolding, which was hauled in the Powell trailer, was erected on the trailer itself on the job site in order to install trusses for a pole barn.

Craft was helping another worker install the trusses for the roof. The workers used a ladder to get on or off the scaffolding. While the scaffolding was being used, the trailer remained hitched to Powell’s pickup. As each truss was put into position, Powell would drive the truck and trailer forward to the next position for a truss to be installed. While the truck was moved forward, claimant Craft and the other worker remained on the scaffolding. When the trailer would be positioned for the installation of the next scaffolding, Powell would stop the truck, turn off the truck’s engine, and leave the truck to do other tasks while claimant Craft and the coworker were installing the next truss.

The accident occurred at lunch break. The truck’s engine was off. Craft was dismounting from the scaffolding. As Craft was dismounting, the other worker jumped onto the bed of the trailer, causing the trailer to rock. As a result of the rocking of the trailer, Craft fell onto the trailer bed and was seriously injured.

Farm Bureau denied automobile liability coverage. Farm Bureau argued that the policy provisions at issue in the case required an injury “because of an auto accident” and/or “caused by an auto accident” and that the terms of the policy therefore required a direct causal connection between an insured auto and the auto accident. In essence, what Farm Bureau was asking the court to do was to modify the auto policy contract to define “auto accident” as “a situation in which an automobile, being used as a means of transportation, is involved in some type of collision or near collision with another vehicle, object, or person.”

The Supreme Court rejected that approach because (1) Farm Bureau chose not to define the phrase “auto accident” in the policy; (2) the phrase “auto accident” had been found by other courts to be an ambiguous term; and (3) if the court were to interpret the contract in the manner in which Farm Bureau requested, the court would be rewriting the contract.

The court explained that Powell had used the insured auto and trailer to transport Craft and the other worker from truss to truss. It was immaterial that Powell turned off the engine as the men worked. Farm Bureau’s reading of the policy would result in intermittent coverage, depending on whether the engine of the truck was on or off as the truck made its way down the row of trusses. Nowhere in the policy did Farm Bureau make coverage contingent on the truck’s engine being on. The court pointed out that the Farm Bureau policy covered the trailer even though the trailer had no engine. Thus, Farm Bureau’s interpretation conflicted with the policy.

Additionally, the court noted that the liability coverage section of the Farm Bureau policy included coverage for “loading and unloading” of a covered vehicle. Thus, stationery vehicles were covered. Reading the policy as a whole, the court noted that the policy defined “occupying” as “getting in, on, out, or off,” which meant there was coverage when a person was exiting the vehicle, as Craft was attempting to do when he was getting off the scaffolding and trailer for lunch.

There had been no intervening event that occurred that was so unrelated to the use of the truck and trailer that it broke the chain of causation between claimant Craft’s use of the truck and trailer and his fall. Ultimately, the Farm Bureau liability coverage portion of the policy established that Farm Bureau agreed to “pay damages for bodily injury . . . for which the insured becomes legally responsible because of an auto accident and arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of any covered auto including the loading or unloading thereof.”

About Jordan Plitt

Plitt is a senior equity partner at The Cavanagh Law Firm in Phoenix, Arizona. He is an associate author/editor of Couch on Insurance, third edition.

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