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Insurer Not Liable for Fight Over Ownership of Car

Georgia law requires all drivers to carry auto insurance. The law sets certain minimum requirements for coverage. For example, a policy must include provide at least $25,000 in coverage for “bodily injury” to one person, or $50,000 to cover multiple persons injured in the same accident. Remember, these are only minimum requirements, and many drivers choose to purchase insurance policies with higher coverage limits.

State Farm Mutual Insurance Co. v. Marshall

But insurance does not cover an accident just because your car may be involved in some way. A recent Georgia case illustrates this point. The case actually began as a dispute over the ownership of a car. In 2010, a boyfriend purchased a car for his girlfriend. She had poor credit and needed him to register the car in his name so she could obtain a loan to finance the purchase. Although the girlfriend subsequently made the loan payments, the vehicle remained legally titled in the name of the boyfriend.

Three years later, the couple ended their relationship. After breaking up with her, the now-ex-boyfriend demanded the keys to the car. She refused and a struggle ensued. Both parties offer different accounts of what happened. According to her account, while they were both inside of the car, he leaned “with his full bodyweight into her.” She attempted to crawl over the front console to exit the vehicle on the passenger side. In the process, she suffered a meniscus tear in one of her knees.

The car was insured under a policy held by the ex-boyfriend. The ex-girlfriend was named as an “additional driver.” She filed a claim for the $100,000 policy limit for bodily injury. She subsequently sued the ex-boyfriend in Georgia state court and served the complaint on the insurer.

The insurer filed a separate action in Macon federal court seeking a declaration that it had no obligation to cover the ex-girlfriend’s injuries or defend the ex-boyfriend against her lawsuit. The judge agreed and issued a judgment in the insurance company’s favor.

The auto insurance policy covered accidents that arise from the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of an insured vehicle. Under Georgia law, the judge observed, “[t]he car’s ‘use’ does not need to be the proximate cause of the claimant’s bodily injuries.” Instead, “there must be such a causal connection as to render it more likely that the injury ‘grew out’ of” the vehicle’s use.

The ex-girlfriend argued the auto insurance policy should cover her injuries since they literally came during “a fight for control of the vehicle.” But as the judge explained, that was not enough to tie the car to the accident. “The connection between the injuries and the vehicle must be more than that the vehicle was the location of the injuries.” For example, if a fight breaks out on a bus between two passengers, one would not say that arose from the “use” of the bus.

Similarly, the judge concluded that in this case, the ex-girlfriend has accused her ex-boyfriend of assault. The car was the location of the alleged assault, but that does not mean her injuries arose from the “use” of the car as defined in the insurance policy. The insurer is therefore not liable for her injuries.