A Incomplete Aircraft is Still an Aircraft

Injured by an Aircraft Fuselage Arose Out of Ownership of Aircraft

See the full video at https://rumble.com/v4aq632-a-incomplete-aircraft-is-still-an-aircraft.html  and at https://youtu.be/DRTMwAsXbcU

Post 4727

A woman was severely injured while moving an inoperable airplane. She now seeks to recover from her husband’s homeowner’s insurance policy. The insurance policy excludes injuries “arising out of” the ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of an aircraft. The policy further defines “aircraft” as “any conveyance used or designed for flight.”

In Lisa Thompson v. United Services Automobile Association and Matthew Mrzena, No. S-18462, Supreme Court of Alaska (January 26, 2024) the Supreme Court resolved the dispute over interpretation of the policy wording.

FACTS

Claiming that the policy should cover her injury because in her view the aircraft became mere “parts” after her husband removed the wings, elevators, and tail rudder. The superior court disagreed, concluding that the fuselage was still an “airplane” and that, in any event, her injuries arose from her husband’s ownership of the aircraft. The court determined that her injuries were therefore not covered by the policy.

Around 2011 Matthew Mrzena purchased a 1946 Piper PA-12 airplane (Piper). Mrzena stopped using the Piper in 2014 when it failed an annual inspection and was deemed no longer airworthy. Mrzena removed the wings, tail rudder, and elevators from the fuselage, leaving the remainder of the fuselage and many other parts intact, including the wheeled landing gear, propeller, seats, windows, and engine. Mrzena kept the Piper in a plastic temporary garage at his home in Palmer, Alaska.

In 2019, Mrzena purchased a new residence where he planned to live with his now-wife Lisa Thompson. During the summer Thompson and Mrzena were in the process of moving their belongings, including the Piper, to the new home. As part of the move the Piper needed to be pushed out of the garage and onto a trailer. Mrzena was pushing from the back of the Piper, with Thompson at the front, when Thompson became pinned under the Piper’s nose. Thompson’s resulting injuries were severe.

At the time of the injury Mrzena had the Piper registered as an aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). He also held an aircraft owner-specific liability policy on the Piper with Avemco Insurance Company (Avemco). Throughout his ownership of the Piper, Mrzena continued to renew both the Piper’s FAA registration and the Avemco aircraft policy.

DISCUSSION

Interpreting USAA’s aircraft exclusion pursuant to the reasonable expectations of the lay insured, the Supreme Court concluded that the policy’s exclusion of coverage for injuries arising out of the ownership or maintenance of an aircraft applies to exclude coverage for Thompson’s injuries. Regardless of whether the Piper was an airplane or a collection of airplane “parts” when it injured Thompson, the injury arose out of Mrzena’s ownership.

The Policy Excludes Coverage For Thompson’s Bodily Injuries Because They Arose Out Of Mrzena’s Ownership And Maintenance Of The Piper.

Generally, courts determine the liability of an insurer by the terms of the policy the insurer  issued. Policy language is construed in accordance with ordinary and customary usage. A restriction on coverage is enforceable if an insurer, by plain language, limits the coverage of its policy.

The USAA policy broadly excludes coverage for bodily injury “arising out of”  ownership and maintenance of an aircraft. This language supports the reasonable expectation that Thompson’s injuries would not be covered because Mrzena and Thompson’s movement of the fuselage, and her resulting injuries, “ar[ose] out of” Mrzena’s ownership and maintenance of the Piper.

Reasonable plane owners would not expect that their planes cease to be aircraft solely because the aircraft had been partially disassembled to perform maintenance.

Mrzena testified that he removed the wings, tail rudder, and elevator to repair damage to the plane’s exterior fabric, and to begin the process of re-covering the components. The Supreme Court noted that clear and unambiguous policy language excluding injuries arising out of ownership or maintenance of an aircraft forecloses Thompson’s argument that her injuries were covered by the policy.

The Supreme Court concluded that a reasonable person interpreting the USAA policy language’s broad exclusions for ownership, maintenance, and use would understand that the aircraft exclusion was intended to create “broad exclusions” for incidents involving a homeowner’s airplane.

Thompson asserted that the Piper was not an “actual aircraft” and became mere “aircraft parts” at some point before her injury. The Supreme Court concluded that it need not determine whether the Piper was an aircraft or mere “parts” at the time of Thompson’s injuries because it concluded that Thompson’s injuries “arose out of” Mrzena’s ownership of the Piper.

ZALMA OPINION

Common sense exists in the Alaska Supreme Court. An aircraft under repair is still an aircraft even if it cannot fly. The Plaintiff was injured while she an her husband were moving the aircraft to a new home where the intended repairs could continue. Therefore, the Plaintiff and her husband were involved in the ownership, maintenance use of an aircraft and the exclusion applied.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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