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Case Law Update: Does falling out of your car constitute a “Motor Vehicle Accident”?

Posted Friday, July 21, 2017 by Christopher L. Thayer

In a recent unpublished decision by the Court of Appeals (Division III), Ramm v. Farmers Insurance Company (No. 34542-4), the court addressed whether or not a person who falls partially out of a vehicle while parked and is injured is entitled to Personal Injury Protection (“PIP”) benefits under their insurance policy.

In Ramm, Mr. Ramm was driving with his son in Spokane when he began to feel nauseous. Believing he was going to be sick, Mr. Ramm turned his vehicle to a side street and pulled over toward the side of the road. The vehicle was placed in park but the keys remained in the ignition with the engine running. Mr. Ramm then unbuckled his seatbelt and leaned out the driver's door to vomit onto the road. But he passed out and fell forward onto the pavement, striking his head and suffering significant injuries. After falling and while still unconscious, Mr. Ramm began bleeding profusely. His head and upper body fell outside the vehicle but his legs and feet remained inside near the pedals for the accelerator and brakes. Mr. Ramm's son drove his father to the emergency room.

The Ramms accumulated medical bills in excess of $10,000 for treatment of Mr. Ramm's injuries. Mr. Ramm submitted a PIP claim under his personal automobile policy with Farmers. The insurance policy agreement provides Farmers "will provide the benefits described [in the policy] for bodily injury to each Insured person caused by a motor vehicle accident."

Farmers declined coverage. Farmers contended a motor vehicle accident only occurs "when the covered motor vehicle is being operated as a motor vehicle" and "a motor vehicle is not being operated as a motor vehicle when parked,” relying on Tyrrell v. Farmers Ins. Co., 140 Wn 2nd 129, 994 P.2d 833 (2000). Farmers argued Mr. Ramm sustained his injuries by falling from a parked vehicle, the events leading to those injuries could not be considered a motor vehicle accident and he was not entitled to PIP coverage. Ramms filed suit to compel coverage and the trial court sided with Farmers Insurance – dismissing their suit.

The Court of Appeals noted “[w]e have held the term motor vehicle accident unambiguously refers to an incident where one or more vehicles come in forceful contact with another vehicle or a person, causing physical injury.” Citing to the Tyrrell decision, the Court of Appeals stated:

[A] motor vehicle accident occurs when a motor vehicle is being operated as a motor vehicle. . . A motor vehicle is being operated as a motor vehicle when it is being driven or when it is stopped while being driven. For example, if a tree limb were to fall on the motor vehicle while a person was driving or had stopped while driving, that would constitute a 'motor vehicle accident.' On the other hand, a motor vehicle is not being operated as a motor vehicle when parked.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s dismissal. It should be noted this decision is “unpublished” (a bit of a misnomer), which means it has no precedential value. It may also be appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. However, it is illustrative of how another court might likely rule under these unusual circumstances. This decision is a reminder that insurance is a contract, not a “right” and your benefits are defined in the contract – your policy of insurance.

If you have any questions about a motor vehicle accident or related insurance coverage issues, feel free to contact Pivotal attorney Chris Thayer at (206) 805-1494 or CThayer@PivotalLawGroup.com.

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