Sunday, May 9, 2010

Pike County Court Rules No Uninsured Motorist Coverage For Accident Caused by Debris on the Roadway

My partner, Attorney Tim Foley, and I were again successful in securing a summary judgment, this time in favor of State Farm in the somewhat novel Pike County Court of Common Pleas case of Adragna v. State Farm, No. 291-2009-Civil (Pike Co. May 5, 2010 Chelak, J.).

In Adragna, the claimant was pursuing an uninsured motorist claim under a State Farm policy based upon a single car motor vehicle accident allegedly caused when the claimant swerved and lost control of her vehicle during an effort to avoid debris on the roadway in the form of large bundles of insulation that allegedly blocked the travel lanes of the highway.

The State Farm policy allowed for coverage for injuries caused to an insured by the operator of an uninsured motor vehicle. More specifically, the policy provided that uninsured motorist coverage would be provided for bodily injuries "caused by an accident that involves the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle as a motor vehicle."

This Pike County action involved a declaratory judgment action filed by my office on behalf of State Farm and sought a judicial declaration that uninsured motorist coverage need not be provided under the facts presented in that the accident was not caused by the operation of an uninsured motor vehicle, but rather was caused by debris on the roadway.

The injured party in Adragna argued that she was entitled to uninsured motorist coverage under her own policy because there could be no other explanation for the bundles of insulation being on the roadway other than that they must have fallen off of a vehicle and, therefore, the claimant's accident was caused by a phantom vehicle that had left the scene.

However, through discovery efforts, including a deposition of the injured party, the defense established that the injured party had no personal knowledge as to how the bundles came to be on the roadway, had no witnesses, and had no other evidence from any source to explain the location of the bundles of insulation on the highway at the time of her accident.

In her post-deposition affidavit filed in response to the defense motion for summary judgment, it was again asserted by the claimant that, since there was no construction or any other activity in the area that could explain the presence of the debris on the roadway, the bundles must have come from a vehicle, thereby entitling her to coverage.

The defense countered with the argument that, even if it were accepted that the debris had been deposited on the roadway by or from another vehicle, such allegations were not sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the State Farm policy for uninsured motorist coverage to apply. Judge Chelak of the Pike County Court of Common Pleas agreed.

At the beginning of his analysis, Judge Chelak generally noted that "[a]utomobile insurance policies in general, and uninsured motorist provisions in particular, 'are designed to compensate victims for vehicle-caused injuries.'" [citation omitted].

The judge found the State Farm policy language to be clear and unambiguous in its requirement that coverage would only be provided for injuries caused by the use or maintenance of an uninsured motor vehicle "as a vehicle."

Reviewing the caselaw cited by the defense in its moving papers, the Pike County court agreed that both the Superior Court of Pennsylvania and the federal courts have held that debris on the roadway that originated from, or were caused by, a vehicle to come upon the roadway did not trigger coverage.

More specifically, in the case of Smith v. USAA, 572 A.2d 785, 787 (Pa.Super. 1990), no coverage was found in a case where a passenger on a hay wagon threw hay at a person who was caused to crash his bike into a tree as a result.

In American National Prop. & Cas. Co. v. Terwillinger, 2007 WL 433180, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9018 (W.D.Pa. 2007), the court found that an accident caused by debris on the road in the form of a loose gravel mixture that another motor vehicle caused to be on the road could not be considered as an accident involving another vehicle as a vehicle. As such, no coverage was found in that case.

Judge Chelak noted that, in each of the cases noted above, as well as in this new Pike County decision, the injured parties' injuries were all caused by the debris itself, i.e. by a source which is external to the vehicle, and not by the vehicle itself. Judge Chelak emphasized that, even though it was known in Smith that the hay was thrown from a vehicle, and even though it was known in Terwillinger that the loose gravel had been deposited on the road by another vehicle prior to the accident, no coverage was found in those cases because the accidents were caused by sources external to the vehicle.

As such, Judge Chelak held that, even if the injured party's presumption in Adragna that the debris in the form of insulation bundles must have come from a vehicle was accepted as true, it did not matter. The injuries would still be deemed to have been caused by the debris and not by another vehicle.

Judge Chelak went on to state that the Smith and Terwillinger cases, when read together, stand for the rule of law that "when foreign material on a roadway causes a motor vehicle accident, an uninsured or underinsured motorist provision in an injured claimant's automobile insurance policy does not provide coverage for the loss."

Accordingly, Judge Chelak held that, since the claimant in Adragna was not entitled to uninsured motorist coverage under the facts presented, State Farm was entitled to a summary judgment in this declaratory judgment action.


Anyone desiring a copy of the Opinion of the Pike County Court of Common Pleas in this case of Adragna v. State Farm may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

The facts of each case are different. No specific results are implied for future cases. Descriptions of awards in previous cases are no guarantee of future results and should not create any expectations that my firm or I can achieve similar results in another case.

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