Friday, April 1, 2011

Federal Middle District Judge Caputo Construes Definition of "Occupying" in a Motor Vehicle Insurance Coverage Case

In a March 28, 2011 Memorandum Opinion in the casee of Sona v. State Farm, No. 3:10-CV-1416 (M.D.Pa. March 28, 2011, Caputo, J.), Judge A. Richard Caputo addressed the issue of whether or not the injured party was "occupying" a dirt bike at the time of an accident, since if he was, the injured party would be precluded from both first party medical benefits and UIM coverage under the terms of the State Farm policy.

The case of Sona involved an injured party who had taken his van to a garage for repairs.  Upon arriving at the garage, he removed a dirt bike from the rear of the van so that the oil could be changed on the bike as well. 

After the bike was removed, a mechanic drove the van into the garage.  The injured party was then manually pushing the dirt bike into the garage.  The injured party did not have the key for the dirt bike and never sat on it.  While the injured party was moving the bike manually across the parking lot, another vehicle backed out of its parking spot and struck the injured party's hand, causing personal injuries.

The parties went into litigation and eventually filed cross-motions on the issue of coverage for first party benefits and UIM benefits.  As noted, the issue centered around whether or not the injured party was occupying the motorcycle at the time of the accident.  If he was, exclusions under the policy would have precluded coverage.

Judge Caputo confirmed the law that a dirt bike is considered to be a "motor vehicle" under Pennsylvania law and turned to the case of Utica Mut. Ins. Co. v. Contrisciane, 473 A.2d 1005 (Pa. 1984) for the relevant factors to utilize in determining whether a person was "occupying" a motor vehicle at the time of an accident.

After applying those factors to the case at hand, Judge Caputo ruled that the injured party was not" occupying" the dirt bike at the time of the accident.  The court noted that, rather than being used as a "motor vehicle" at the time of the accident, the dirt bike was being used in a manner more akin to a situation like a person moving a piece of furniture. 

The court therefore found that the exclusions to coverage under the policy were inapplicable.  As such, Judge Caputo entered a ruling in favor of coverage.

I have been informed that the parties involved agreed that no appeal would be filed from Judge Caputo's decision.

Anyone desiring a copy of this decision may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

I send thanks to the prevailing Plaintiff's attorney Howard Rothenberg of the Scranton law office of Herlands, Rothenberg & Levine for bringing this case to my attention

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