Equity Trumps Law in Rhode Island

Court Changes Clear and Unambiguous Language of Policy to Provide Benefits

Judges are often kind people intent on providing an equitable result for the injured litigants because they feel – when faced with a dispute between an injured person and an insurance company – that the insurance company can better withstand the expense than the injured person. In doing so they forget that it is the obligation of a court to rule on the law not on their feelings about what is equitable.

In Hudson v. GEICO Insurance Agency, Inc., Supreme Court of Rhode Island, — A.3d —-, 2017 WL 2622777 (June 16, 2017) the plaintiff, Amberleigh Hudson (plaintiff), appealed from a Superior Court judgment in favor of the defendant, GEICO Insurance Agency, Inc., d/b/a GEICO General Insurance Company (defendant or GEICO), in this underinsured motorist (UM) insurance case.

FACTS

In the early morning hours of February 11, 2012, plaintiff and her then-boyfriend, Gregory Hurst (Hurst). Hurst was driving his Saab, which was insured by defendant (the GEICO policy), and plaintiff was a passenger. Hurst pulled into the parking lot and parked the vehicle with a plan to then exit the vehicle and go into the Amazing Super Store. When they heard the sound of a crash, signifying an automobile collision, on nearby Allens Avenue.

The couple exited the Saab, crossed the parking lot of the Amazing Super Store, and the two southbound lanes of Allens Avenue in order to reach the nearby accident scene. While Hurst called 9–1–1, plaintiff went to the rear of the vehicles to retrieve the license plate numbers. While looking down at a license plate, plaintiff heard somebody yell “car.” A third vehicle, traveling north on Allens Avenue, then struck the accident vehicles, adjacent to where plaintiff was standing. She was injured as a result of this impact.

The plaintiff settled a claim against the operator of the vehicle that hit her; however, she has alleged that this did not fully compensate her for her injuries. Consequently, plaintiff filed a claim with defendant seeking relief through Hurst’s GEICO policy that insured the Saab. The GEICO policy afforded protection to passengers “occupying” the insured vehicle at the time of the accident. The policy defined “occupying” as “in, upon entering into or alighting from [the vehicle].” The defendant denied plaintiff’s claim, on the ground that she was not “occupying” the insured vehicle at the time of her injuries.

THE ISSUE

Whether, in light of a state statute, a Good Samaritan who was injured while rendering roadside aid may be considered to be “occupying” an insured motor vehicle for purposes of UM coverage under that vehicle’s insurance policy.

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff contended that the rendering of reasonable assistance as a Good Samaritan, constitutes an “essential transaction” for purposes of UM coverage. The statute provides that “Any person at the scene of an emergency who knows that another person is exposed to, or has suffered, grave physical harm shall, to the extent that he or she can do so without danger or peril to himself or herself or to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person.  * * *.”

GEICO contended that a Good Samaritan can only be “occupying” an insured vehicle if each of the elements required are met.

THE GEICO POLICY

In Rhode Island, the approach that controls the interpretation of an insurance policy can be classified as either inclusive or exclusive, based on whether the policy clause at issue includes a person other than the named insured within the coverage afforded or seeks to exclude the named insured from the coverage. Specifically, the Supreme Court recognized the “general principle favoring broad coverage” as the cornerstone for the analysis.

When examining an insurance policy, the court will not depart from the literal language of the policy absent a finding that the policy is ambiguous, with the salutary purpose underlying UM provisions, which is to indemnify an insured motorist for loss when recovery from the uninsured tortfeasor is unavailable.

Plaintiff, a passenger and person other than the named insured, seeks to be included within the protection afforded under Hurst’s GEICO policy. Accordingly, the court concluded it was obligated to read the terms of the GEICO policy broadly to determine whether, at the time of her injuries, plaintiff was “occupying” the insured Saab.

OCCUPANCY

The Supreme Court determined that a strict adherence to the policy wording is in stark contrast to the general purpose to extend coverage broadly – that is, to provide coverage that is not included within the insuring agreement.

First, the plaintiff must show a causal relation or connection between the injury and the use of the insured vehicle. The plaintiff must show that there is some “nexus” between the insured motor vehicle and the claimant’s injuries.  The facts showed the Supreme Court a sufficient nexus between the insured motor vehicle and plaintiff’s injuries, in that plaintiff was inside the insured vehicle when she heard the collision and exited the vehicle in order to offer assistance at the nearby scene.  In the Supreme Court’s opinion, these facts establish a nexus between the insured motor vehicle and plaintiff’s injuries sufficient to successfully meet the first requirement.

Second, the trial court established that the plaintiff was in a reasonably close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle sufficient to provide coverage even though she traveled across a parking lot and crossed a highway to render aid.

The Supreme Court was satisfied that plaintiff’s departure from the insured vehicle was incident to a temporary interruption in an otherwise unfinished excursion into the Amazing Super Store and that, upon completion of the occurrence causing the interruption, plaintiff intended to resume her journey. It is undisputed that plaintiff exited the insured vehicle for the purpose of rendering aid to the victims of a motor vehicle collision in close proximity, and for no other purpose.

Fourth, the individual must be engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle at the time of his or her injuries and a willingness to render aid at the scene of a motor vehicle collision as a Good Samaritan, is inherently part of the use of a motor vehicle in this state. A Good Samaritan is unable to ignore the sight of a perilously stranded motorist and thus, held that a rescue effort to assist an occupant of another vehicle is a transaction essential to the use of the rescuer’s vehicle.

The “public policy of encouraging citizens to save others from life threatening situations dictates that Good Samaritans should be protected. Certainly, the law of this state recognizes the value of encouraging the reasonable efforts of Good Samaritans protects them from injuries they cause to others.

The facts unquestionably illustrate that plaintiff exited the vehicle to render aid to the victims of the collision on Allens Avenue. Therefore, by leaving the insured vehicle in order to administer rescue efforts, plaintiff was engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the insured vehicle sufficient to satisfy the fourth requirement.

The plaintiff, who was injured while rendering roadside aid as a Good Samaritan, was occupying the insured Saab for purposes of UM coverage. Therefore, the Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiff is entitled to recover under the terms of the GEICO policy.

ZALMA OPINION

The Chief Justice dissented because, when Ms. Hudson heard the crash and was alerted to the collision, her presence inside the insured vehicle was merely incidental to the events that followed. Clearly, Ms. Hudson’s actions were commendable.As laudable as it is to provide her coverage, to do so requires an unreasonable expansion of the policy language. Regardless of the plaintiff’s praiseworthy deed in coming to the aid of a person in distress,  a court should not be at liberty to create bad law to cover good persons. By the Supreme Court doing so it rights one wrong, the plaintiff’s injury, while creating another, holding GEICO responsible even when the law said otherwise. A court should never rewrite the policy wording agreed to by the insurer and the insured.

 

 

ZALMA-INS-CONSULT                      © 2017 – Barry Zalma

This article and all of the blog posts on this site digests and summarize cases published by courts of the various states and the United States.  The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 49 years in the insurance business.

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Legal Disclaimer:

The author and publisher disclaim any liability, loss, or risk incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this blog. The information provided is not a substitute for the advice of a competent insurance, legal, or other professional. The Information provided at this site should not be relied on as legal advice. Legal advice cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to an individual situation.

 

 

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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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