Auto policy covers deer hunting accident

spectr17

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Auto policy found to cover deer-hunting accident

February 01, 2002

Donald I Renau, American Agent & Broker
St. Louis.

Insurance News.Net

(I thought of my many agent friends who are deer hunters when I found this Florida case. The facts in it were undisputed.)

The driver of a pickup truck and a passenger were out deer hunting. As they drove along a field road, with the driver's loaded rifle on the seat between them, they encountered a parked vehicle, and the driver got out to speak with the occupants. When some deer came into view, the driver returned to the pickup truck and asked the passenger to hand him his rifle. The passenger passed the weapon to the driver, stock first, through the truck's open window. As he grabbed the rifle, the driver accidentally pulled the trigger and the rifle discharged, striking the passenger in the right leg. The leg subsequently had to be amputated, and the passenger sued for damages.

At the time of the accident, the driver had an auto policy containing liability coverage that provided, in part: "[W]e will pay damages for bodily injury for which an insured person becomes legally responsible because of an accident arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a vehicle." At trial, the driver's insurance company maintained that the accident did not fall within that wording and filed for summary judgment, which was granted. The plaintiff appealed.

The question before the appeals court was whether the shooting was an "accident arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the vehicle. The appeal court noted that Quarles as. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 533 So. 2d 809 (Fla. Ct. App. 1988) found that cases involving accidental shootings and motor vehicles can be categorized.

In one category, discussed in the Quarles case, the auto is "a `mere situs' for the accident, which occurs when the vehicle's occupant handles or plays with a gun causing it to accidentally discharge inside a moving or stationary vehicle." In such cases, courts have declined to find coverage, because "there (was) no causal connection between the discharge of the gun and the inherent use of the vehicle."

Another class of cases cited in the appeal involved the use of part of the vehicle as a `gun rest' for the purpose of firing a weapon. The courts were divided over whether there is coverage in these cases, with some finding that the use of a vehicle as a gun rest was foreign to the vehicle's inherent use.

Yet another class of cited cases involved the accidental discharge of guns resting in or being removed from gun racks permanently attached to vehicles. Coverage was found to exist in these situations because the gun racks established a significant causal connection between the use of the vehicles and the accidental discharge of weapons carried in them.

A fourth class of cases involved injuries that occur when a firearm discharges while being loaded into, or unloaded from, a vehicle. The appeals court noted that other courts generally have found that auto insurance policies extend liability coverage to the loading and unloading process.

The appeals court said that the case before it fell into this fourth class. In this case, a rifle accidentally discharged as the weapon was being removed through the open window of a pickup truck to shoot a deer. The court said that "because the principal use of an automobile is transportation-- being dependent upon the operations of loading and unloading-the act of removing the rifle was an "inherent use of the automobile as a vehicle," making the pickup more than a mere "situs of the accident." The appeals court reversed the summary judgment in favor of the carrier and sent the case back to the trial court for a judgment in favor the injured plaintiff.

(Taliaferro vs. Progressive Specialty Insurance Co., No. 1001187 (Ala. 11/16/2001) 2001.AL.0000939 (www.versuslaw.com.
 
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