Does the Motor Vehicle Exclusion in your Homeowners Policy apply in every case?

by Barry P. Goldberg, A Professional Law Corporation
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Woodland Hills personal injury lawyer Barry P. Goldberg has a critical expertise in analyzing both Auto and Homeowners policies.  One of the more confusing areas is whether a Homeowners or Renters liability policy can somehow be applied to a motor vehicle accident circumstance.  In fact, in early in his career, Barry P. Goldberg litigated many unusual circumstances wherein Homeowners policies were implicated in serious motor vehicle accident cases, including arguments in the Court of Appeal.

One of the clearer examples outlining this “collision” of insurance policies is the circumstance where a driver substantially (and negligently) modifies his own vehicle in his own garage. I recall cases where drivers installed lawn chairs in place of actual roadworthy seats and a passenger was seriously injured. More recently, in an unpublished decision, the Court of Appeal examined a circumstance where a landlord negligently and illegally rented a back property where the door opened up to a driveway.  A toddler exited the door and was killed by a backing vehicle driven by the landlord.  The plaintiff contended that both the Auto and Homeowners policy applied.

Can a Homeowners Policy Apply? State Farm Mutual Ins. Co. v. Partridge.

Whether a motor vehicle exclusion in a Homeowners policy bars coverage for an accident involving a vehicle is a difficult. Analysis must start our Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Partridge (1973) 10 Cal.3d 94 (Partridge). In that case, Partridge owned a gun that he had modified so that it had a “hair trigger action.” He brought the gun with him when he was driving with two friends to hunt jackrabbits from his vehicle. While driving off road, Partridge’s vehicle hit a bump and the gun discharged—the bullet hit his friend and the resulting injury left her paralyzed. (Id. at 98.) Does this ever happen to you?

In that case, Partridge had both an Automobile policy and a Homeowners policy with the same insurer which conceded auto coverage.  However, it filed a declaratory relief action for a determination whether coverage was precluded on the Homeowners policy because it had a “use of vehicle” exclusion.  The defendants “argued that since two independent negligent acts, one covered by the homeowners policy and one by the automobile policy, jointly caused the accident, coverage should be afforded by both policies.” (Id. at p. 97.)

The Court held “the crucial question presented is whether a liability insurance policy provides coverage for an accident caused jointly by an insured risk (the negligent filing of the trigger mechanism) and by an excluded risk (the negligent driving). Defendants correctly contend that when two such risks constitute concurrent proximate causes of an accident, the insurer is liable so long as one of the causes is covered by the policy.” (Id. at 102.) The Court noted State Farm conceded the negligent filing of the trigger mechanism was a risk covered by the liability policy and that had the injury occurred while the insured was walking down the street or running in the woods, the resulting injury would have been covered under the policy. The Court accordingly reasoned coverage under the Homeowners policy should not be denied because negligent driving also contributed to the injury. (Id. at 103.)

Are the Two Causes “Concurrent” and “Dependent”?

Here is where it gets tricky.  Most lawyers can make a plausible argument that multiple causes proximately combined to cause the motor vehicle accident or injury.  However, it is much more difficult to analyze whether the cause covered under the Homeowners policy could have “independently” cause the accident or injury.  For example, what if an adult leaves children in a parked vehicle and they are harmed by the excessive heat? What if a modification to a vehicle causes an explosion?  What if a vehicle falls off a negligently designed lift?  The possibilities are endless.

If you are aware of a serious injury which may contain negligent factors arising from activities “unrelated” to the actual motor vehicle, it is critical that you consult with an experienced personal injury attorney that is familiar with the “ins and outs” of the technical insurance laws and different policies.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Barry P. Goldberg, A Professional Law Corporation | Attorney Advertising

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