In most cases, damages arising from a car accident are covered by the negligent driver’s auto insurance policy. But what if the accident occurred while the car was still in the owner’s driveway? Would homeowner’s insurance actually cover such damages?
Wilkinson v. Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed these questions in Wilkinson v. Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company. This case began when a man named Buchanan purchased a used Ford F350 truck. One of Buchanan’s co-workers, a man named Wilkinson, asked to take a look at the truck. Wilkinson and his wife subsequently went to Buchanan’s house.
The truck was parked in Buchanan’s driveway. Buchanan then “drove the truck forward approximately eight feet” to a position where Wilkinson could better inspect it. At this point, the truck “was parked on an incline and facing the street.” Buchanan then turned the truck on, place it it neutral, and set the emergency brake.
Wilkinson’s wife then took the driver’s seat. Buchanan instructed her to pop the hood, taking care not to pull the emergency brake. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Wilkinson’s wife did. She mistakenly pulled the emergency brake, causing the truck to take off. Wilkinson’s wife was thrown under the truck and sustained several injuries before Buchanan managed to regain control of the vehicle.
Both Wilkinsons subsequently sued Buchanan for negligence. This prompted Buchanan’s homeowner’s insurance company to file a separate lawsuit, seeking a judicial declaration that it was not liable for any damages the Wilkinsons might obtain against Buchanan. Among other arguments, the insurance company maintained the homeowner’s policy “excludes coverage for injuries arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of motor vehicles.”
A trial court agreed with the insurance company’s interpretation of the policy and granted it summary judgment. The Court of Appeals reversed, however, holding that under these set of facts, the accident that injured Mrs. Wilkinson did not arise from the “use” of a motor vehicle.
In previous cases, Georgia courts have said that whether an injury arises from the “use” of a motor vehicle turns on three factors:
- The physical proximity of the injury site to the vehicle;
- The nature of the conduct which caused the situation of jeopardy; and
- Whether the vehicle was being “utilized” in the plain and ordinary sense of the word.
Here, the evidence presented thus far only showed “that the parked truck was being inspected at the time of the accident.” It was not being “utilized” in the ordinary sense. Based on the third factor cited above, the Court of Appeals therefore held the vehicle was not “in use” when the accident occurred.
As a result, the trial court committed legal error when it held the insurance company was not obligated to defend Buchanan in the Wilkinsons’ underlying personal injury lawsuit, at least at this point in time. The Court of Appeals did not address the merits of that lawsuit, or the actual extent of Buchanan’s liability for the accident.