Most Auto Accidents Are Excluded From Homeowners Coverage

by Barry P. Goldberg, A Professional Law Corporation

In serious personal injury cases it is imperative to locate every possible source of insurance coverage. Often injury victims look to the at fault party's homeowners insurance even though the injuries arose from an automobile accident. In fact, there are only some very limited circumstances where homeowners insurance may apply.

Typically, the homeowners policy contains the following exclusions resulting from the ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of a motor vehicle (the "automobile exclusion"); as follows:

"We do not cover bodily injury, property damage or personal injury which:

. . .

"7. Results from the ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of:

. . .

"b. motor vehicles; . . . ."

However, the question that arises most often is "what if a covered cause combines with an uncovered cause to create the accident or damage? That question was answered by the California Supreme Court in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Partridge (1973) 10 Cal.3d 94 (Partridge).

The insured in Partridge had filed the trigger mechanism of his .357 Magnum pistol to lighten the trigger pull. One evening, the insured was driving in the countryside on a rabbit hunt with two friends beside him and, using his modified pistol, was shooting out the window of the moving vehicle. The vehicle hit a bump, and the pistol discharged a bullet, seriously injuring one of the passengers. The injured passenger sued for damages. (Partridge, supra, 10 Cal.3d at p. 98.)

The insured had both an automobile and a homeowners policy with the same insurer, and the insurer brought a declaratory relief action requesting a determination as to which one, or both, of its policies afforded coverage. The trial court concluded both policies applied. The Supreme Court affirmed, but not on any basis helpful to appellants. The Supreme Court first held the insured's use of the car was only one of two joint causes of the accident, and the other concurrent cause—the insured's modification of the gun—was a risk covered by the homeowners policy, liability for which existed independently of the use of the automobile. (Id. at p. 102.) In sum, Partridge held that coverage is available "whenever an insured risk constitutes simply a concurrent proximate cause of the injuries." (Id. at p. 105.)(Emphasis added.)

Since Partridge in 1973, almost every possible scenario imaginable has attempted to apply the rule in order to obtain coverage under the homeowners policy---most unsuccessfully.

For example, inPrince v. United Nat. Ins. Co. (2006) 142 Cal.App.4th 233 is illustrative. There, a foster parent, left her two foster children in an overheated SUV for several hours on a hot day. The children died. Their biological parents filed a wrongful death action and a declaratory relief action against the liability insurer of Trinity. The Court of Appeal held: "Whether the test to be applied is predominating cause/substantial factor or minimal causal connection makes no difference here. The relationship between the use of the automobile and the injury was sufficient to trigger the exclusion . . . [T]he vehicle, far from being merely the situs of the injury, was itself 'the instrumentality' of it. [Citation.] Moreover, the use of the vehicle was anything but 'incidental' to the injuries suffered by its occupants. It was a predominating cause/substantial factor in their deaths. . . ." (Id. at pp. 244–245.)

In National Indemnity Co. v. Farmers Home Mutual Ins. Co. (1979) 95 Cal.App.3d 102 the insured was babysitting her nephew. After the insured parked her car, the nephew ran out of the car and halfway across the street, where he was hit by a passing car. The Court of Appeal held that the exclusionary clause applied, as follows: "Here the act of the insured which gives rise to liability, if such liability is ultimately established, is her negligent failure to supervise and control the child during the unloading of the vehicle at a place well removed from the insured's premises . . . . There is a complete absence of conduct on the part of the insured which is independent of and unrelated to the 'use' of the vehicle. The conduct of the insured which contributed to the injury simply cannot be dissociated from the use of the vehicle. Nor did the injury, insofar as the insured is concerned, involve an instrumentality other than the vehicle itself. [Citation.] This being so, the exclusion clause in the . . . homeowners policy must be given effect." (Id. at pp.108-109.)

In Belmonte v. Employers Ins. Co. (2000) 83 Cal.App.4th 430, the insured's niece entered his office and without his permission took the keys to his van and drove it around the parking lot with her friend. While at the wheel, she lost control of the van and hit her friend, causing serious injury. The insured, which owned and operated a store covered by a general liability policy that included a standard exclusionary clause, was sued, and requested his insurer to defend him in the suit. They refused, citing the automobile exclusion. The Court of Appeal held that the exclusion applied because access to the keys alone did not suffice to cause the injury and establish liability, it was not a proximate cause separate from the use of the van. (Id. at p. 434.)

The most recent case to address the issue reached the same result. In Farmers Ins. Exchange v. Superior Court (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 1199, a two-year-old girl was killed when she was accidentally run over by her grandfather in the driveway of his home. The mother and two sisters of the child filed a wrongful death action, alleging that the grandfather was negligent in operation of his pickup truck. A second cause of action alleged that the grandmother was negligent in the supervision of the child while on her premises. (Id. at p. 1202.)

The Court of Appeal held that the insurer had no liability as a matter of law. (Id. at pp. 1203, 1214.):

"The injury 'involved no instrumentality other than the vehicle itself,' and 'there would have been no accident without the use or operation of' the vehicle. (Safeco Ins. Co. v. Gilstrap (1983) 141 Cal.App.3d 524, 530." (Farmers Ins. Exchange v. Superior Court, supra, 220 Cal.App.4th at p. 1209.)

"Moreover . . . the supervision here was negligent only because it exposed the children to the danger of negligent automobile use. "Courts following Partridge have made it clear that its holding only applies to "multiple causes that operated totally independently of one another". . . ." (Farmers Ins. Exchange v. Superior Court, supra, 220 Cal.App.4th at p. 1210.)

The essence of these holdings is that there is no coverage under a homeowners policy for injuries which could not have occurred but for the operation or use of a motor vehicle. As one court point blank put it: "The liability must arise from nonvehicular conduct and must exist independently of the use or ownership of the vehicle." (Gurrola v. Great Southwest Ins. Co. (1993) 17 Cal.App.4th 65, 69.) To the same effect, see Safeco Ins. Co. v. Gilstrap, supra, 141 Cal.App.3d at p. 527)

As an insurance coverage attorney, Mr. Goldberg examines the act which gives rise to liability to determine if it is independent and unrelated to the use of the vehicle. If not, the exclusionary clause must be given effect.


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.

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