Coverage unavailable for deaths in home garageAuthor / Coordinator: Barbara L. Jones
Survivors of a man who died accidentally of carbon monoxide poisoning while in his vehicle in his garage were not eligible for no-fault benefits where they were unable to prove that the decedent’s use of the vehicle was consistent with motoring, the Court of Appeals has ruled.
The man and a relative were found unconscious in the back area of the truck and later died. The keys were in the ignition and the facts of the case indicated that the decedent turned it on to warm the car or listen to the radio, said the court.
A Hennepin County District Court judge ruled after a bench trial that the death did not arise out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle within the meaning of the No-Fault Act, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
“The facts do not suggest that the decedent was using the car for transportation purposes at the time of his death and, therefore, his survivors are not eligible to receive no-fault benefits,” wrote Judge Natalie E. Hudson.
The 11-page case is Alexis v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.
The case provides some significant guidance on the burden of proof and the standard of review, said Minneapolis attorney William Hart, who represented the insurer. Although Hart felt that the Court of Appeals should have applied a clearly erroneous standard rather than a de novo review, he agreed with the result. He added that application of the case may be limited since in most cases the use of the vehicle is more clear-cut.
Minneapolis attorney Sharon L. Van Dyck, who represented the decedent’s family, said that there is no doubt in her mind that the case is the type of loss that the Legislature intended the No-Fault Act to cover. Limiting coverage to situations where the car is used for transportation purposes is a judicial creation, she added.
“This man died by accident through the appropriate use of a car. Why is that not covered?” she asked.
Van Dyck said she is still considering whether to request further review of the case.
The decedent and his wife’s cousin were found unconscious in the decedent’s 1983 Chevrolet Suburban in the decedent’s garage. Both later died. The police investigation concluded that the two men died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the exhaust from the Suburban.
The decedent’s widow sought economic loss and funeral benefits on behalf of herself and her six children. The defendant denied coverage on the ground that the injuries did not arise out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle.
The parties stipulated that the men were found lying down in different parts of the truck, the garage door was closed and the key was in the ignition in the “on” position. However, the engine was not running and the gas tank was full. The men died of carbon monoxide poisoning and had not ingested alcohol or any controlled substance. Tests showed that the Suburban generated higher-than-normal levels of carbon monoxide in the first 20 minutes of operation. The police concluded that the deaths were accidental.
The parties agreed that there was a direct causation between the automobile and the injury and that no act of independent significance broke the causal link. However, they disputed whether the vehicle was being used for transportation purposes at the time of the injury, as required for no-fault benefits by the Supreme Court in its 1987 decision, Continental Western Ins. Co. v. Klug.
Based on the stipulated facts, the District Court judge said that the Suburban was not being used for transportation purposes and that therefore the death did not arise out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle within the No-Fault Act. The plaintiff appealed.
The Court of Appeals applied a de novo standard of review because the determination of whether the vehicle was being used for transportation purposes is a question of law. The court also said that the plaintiff, as the insured party, bore the burden of proving that the injuries arose out of the use of a motor vehicle for transportation purposes.
The plaintiff cannot satisfy her burden of proof by merely demonstrating that the injured party’s use was reasonably consistent with the inherent nature of a vehicle, Hudson wrote. Rather, the plaintiff must show that the decedent’s use was consistent with “motoring,” the judge said.
The preponderance of the evidence did not so demonstrate, Hudson said. The decedent and the wife’s cousin were found lying down in the back area of the truck and were in the truck at a time when neither of them would be expected to be leaving for work. The plaintiff did not claim — and no facts suggested — that the decedent had recently returned from a trip, the judge noted.
“Taken together, these facts suggest that decedent turned on the ignition to warm the car and/or listen to the radio while he rested in the back seat,” Hudson observed. “The facts do not suggest that the decedent was using the car for transportation purposes at the time of his death and, therefore, his survivors are not eligible to receive no-fault benefits.”
Judge Robert H. Schumacher concurred separately, but found the decision incongruous with the purpose of the No-Fault Act, which is to compensate victims of accidents directly caused by the use of a motor vehicle.
“[I] fear that the ‘transportation purposes’ test now operates to exclude a class of accidents and victims that the Minnesota Legislature never intended to exclude when it passed the no-fault act,” wrote the judge.