A unanimous three-judge panel for the Pennsylvania Superior Court declined to apply an auto insurance policy’s “household-exclusion” to an incident where a woman was first thrown from a motorcycle and then hit by an oncoming vehicle. In September 2008, Mr. and Mrs. Swarner were involved in a head on collision with a pickup truck driven by Joshua Bender on an on-ramp in Juniata County. On impact, both were ejected from the motorcycle. Mrs. Swarner landed in a lane of travel where she was subsequently run over.
Mutual Benefit Group insured the Swarmers with respect to auto coverage for their two cars and a truck. The insurance included stackable UIM coverage. However, Mr. Swarmer insured the motorcycle separately. Thus, Mutual Benefit Group disclaimed coverage for the accident which it deemed as related to the motorcycle usage.
In Swarmer v. Mutual Benefit Group, the insurer argued for the application of the four factors established by the Supreme Court in Utica Mutual Insurance v. Constrisciane, often utilized in determining whether an injured party was in fact “occupying” the vehicle at the time of loss. These factors include: a causal connection between the injury and use of the vehicle, “reasonably close” proximity to the vehicle of the person claiming coverage, the person must be vehicle-oriented rather than sidewalk or highway oriented and the person must be “engaged in transaction essential to the use of the vehicle at the time.” While a Juniata County judge granted Mutual Benefit Group’s motion for summary judgment on this basis, the Superior court reversed and remanded this decision in favor of a plain-meaning analysis of the terms “occupying a vehicle.” In doing so, the court declined to follow Utica, but rather adhered to precedent established by Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance v. Hymes – holding that a plain meaning analysis applied to the interpretation of policy exclusions. Further, the court upheld jurisprudence directing judges to construe insurance policies broadly in terms of coverage, but policy exclusions contained therein more narrowly.
Judge Mary Jane Bowes noted that Swarner is a case strictly concerning a policy exclusion, and is not about granting broad–based UIM/policy coverage. The court in turn viewed this case as two separate and distinct accidents for the purposes of determining enforceability of the household exclusion. As such, because the injured party in this case was no longer “on” or in the process of “getting in, on, out or off” the vehicle when she was run over, she had ceased to occupy the vehicle within the meaning of the household policy exclusion.
Special thanks to Samantha Epstein for her contribution.
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