Was GEICO was forced to pay over $5 million to a woman because she contracted an STD in the vehicle?
No – despite the alarm-raising clickbait headlines from various media outlets, GEICO was not forced to pay the $5 million award (not yet anyway). Furthermore, this was not a jury verdict. Like so many other stories pushed by “tort reform” alarmists, 1) there is more to the story, and 2) the premise of the headlines is not true.
Below, we will take a look at the GEICO $5 million award case in Missouri, including:
- What actually happened (the insured and the plaintiff submitted their claims to arbitration and GEICO refused to defend the claim),
- Why GEICO probably will not be required to pay the $5 million award, and
- The limits of when an automobile insurance policy is required to cover damages for a non-automobile accident in SC.
GEICO Argues They Were Denied Their Day in Court Because They Cannot Challenge Arbitration Award
On June 7, 2022, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, decided M.O. v. Geico. M.O. does not stand for Missouri, by the way – it is the initials of the Plaintiff’s name, redacted for privacy concerns due to the nature of the case.
M.O. (the plaintiff) claimed that Insured (GEICO’s customer) negligently infected her with HPV (human papillomavirus). The case went to arbitration, GEICO refused to defend against the claim, the arbitrator found that Insured (the defendant accused of transmitting the virus, not GEICO) was liable for negligently transmitting the STD, and the arbitrator awarded the plaintiff $5.2 million in damages:
Insured and M.O. entered into an agreement pursuant to section 537.065, RSMo,1 and agreed to arbitrate M.O.’s claims. The arbitrator found Insured negligently infected M.O. with HPV and awarded her $5.2 million in damages.
Just as many corporations (and insurance companies whenever possible) will insist on an arbitration agreement where the parties waive their right to a jury trial and waive their right to appeal the result, Insured and M.O. agreed to abide by the arbitrator’s decision:
In her motion to confirm the award, M.O. asserted she and Insured had agreed “that after an arbitration award is issued, [M.O.] will immediately seek to have the award confirmed . . . and reduced to judgment . . . and that neither party will seek judicial review of the award or attempt to have the award set aside, modified, amended or changed in any way unless by express written agreement of each party.”
GEICO moved to intervene – after the arbitration award was issued and after the plaintiff filed an action to enforce the award in the trial court, arguing the same things that many disappointed plaintiffs argue after what they believe is an unreasonable outcome in arbitration proceedings:
GEICO filed a motion for leave to conduct discovery, a motion for new trial, and a motion to vacate the arbitration award. In the latter two motions, GEICO asserted that the arbitration award and judgment confirming it should be vacated because the award “was procured by collusion, fraud, [and] undue means,” it was “contrary to public policy and §§ 537.065 and 435.350,” it was the result of an invalid and unenforceable arbitration agreement, and it violated GEICO’s due process rights and right to access the courts.
The trial court and the Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that 1) GEICO chose not to defend the claim when it was filed and 2) although the relevant statutes gave GEICO the right to intervene, it did not give them the right to relitigate the issues – the intervenor is not a party to the action, has no “other rights beyond what any intervenor would have,” and an intervenor must accept the action pending as he finds it at the time of intervention.”
But GEICO Hasn’t Been Ordered to Pay the $5 Million – The Appellate Opinion Does Not Address Coverage
There was no out-of-control jury verdict against GEICO. It was an arbitration award against the defendant (who was GEICO’s insured) for the damage they caused by negligently infecting M.O. with an STD.
GEICO was not ordered by the court to pay the arbitration award. The Missouri Court of Appeals’ holding was that GEICO does not have the right to relitigate the issues in the case based on Missouri law or constitutional protections.
The result of the Missouri opinion was 1) the Insured is liable for damages, and 2) GEICO does not have the right to relitigate the issues when they declined to defend the case, but 3) coverage is undecided.
Why is coverage undecided?
The Missouri Court of Appeals was not asked to decide and did not decide whether the policy covered the transmission of an STD in the vehicle. GEICO filed a separate lawsuit in federal court, which is still pending, asking that court for a declaratory judgment as to whether they are obligated to pay the arbitration award:
…we would note that it had every opportunity to enter a defense of [its insured] without reservation and thus to litigate such matters, but chose not to do so.” (internal marks omitted)). GEICO did not take advantage of this opportunity, and instead denied coverage and refused to defend Insured. Moreover, GEICO initiated a declaratory judgment action in federal court seeking a determination as to its obligations under the insurance policy, and that federal action provides yet another forum in which GEICO may defend its interests. See Britt, 577 S.W.3d at 142 (“[T]he insurer has a forum by declaratory judgment action . . . that affords the insurer full scope to protect its interests against the contention of coverage, and hence liability for the judgment.”).
In short, any outrage over GEICO being forced to pay $5.2 million for the negligent transmission of an STD is a whole lot of nothing – that is not what the Missouri court ordered.
The Limits of Automobile Insurance Coverage in SC – Damages Arise from the Ownership, Maintenance, or Use of the Vehicle
When does automobile insurance cover damages for non-accidents that occur in a vehicle?
SC courts have held that an insured is legally entitled to recover damages arising out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of an uninsured vehicle.
There is a three-pronged test “for determining when an injury arises out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured vehicle:”
- There must be a causal connection between the vehicle and the injury,
- There cannot be an “act of independent significance” breaking the causal connection, and
- The vehicle was being used for transportation at the time of the injury.
What is meant by a “causal connection?” The courts have defined this as:
- The vehicle was an “active accessory” to the assault,
- There was “something less than proximate cause but more than mere site of the injury,” and
- The “injury must be foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of an automobile.”
Let’s look at a few examples under SC law:
State Farm v. Aytes: The court found that, where the defendant forced the plaintiff into her vehicle, drove her to the location of the assault, exited the vehicle, and then shot her in the foot while she was seated in the vehicle, there was no coverage because 1) the vehicle was not used in the assault, 2) the vehicle was not being used for transportation at the time of the injury, and 3) if there was a causal link, it was broken when the defendant exited the vehicle.
State Farm v. Bookert: Where the occupant of a moving vehicle fired shots from the moving vehicle, there was no coverage because the shooting injuries were not “foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of an automobile.”
Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Brown, 779 F.2d 984 (4th Cir. 1985): The Fourth Circuit found no coverage where the Insured transported the defendant to a location where the defendant then shot his wife. SC courts have cited this case for the proposition that “[t]he required causal connection does not exist when the only connection between an injury and the insured vehicle’s use is the fact that the injured person was an occupant of the vehicle when the shooting occurred.”
In Wausau Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Howser, 309 S.C. 269, 422 S.E.2d 106 (1992), however, the SC Supreme Court found that there was coverage where an assailant chased the plaintiff in his vehicle and then shot the plaintiff from the vehicle (a result that seems to contradict the result in Bookert):
Only through use of his vehicle was the assailant able to closely pursue Howser, thereby enabling him to carry out the pistol assault. The gunshot was the culmination of an ongoing assault, in which the vehicle played an essential and integral part. Additionally, only a motor vehicle could have provided the assailant a quick and successful escape. Thus, we find a sufficient causal connection exists between the use of the assailant’s vehicle and Howser’s injuries.
In the case of Geico’s $5.2 million arbitration award, it remains to be seen whether the federal district court will find that there is or is not coverage for the negligent transmission of an STD in the vehicle.
Under SC and Fourth Circuit precedent, there would most likely not be coverage because the only connection between the injury and the insured vehicle’s use was the fact that the injured person was an occupant of the vehicle when the negligent transmission happened…
If you or someone you know has been injured in an auto accident and has questions about whether there is insurance coverage, schedule a free consultation with a Myrtle Beach auto accident lawyer on the Axelrod team. Call now at 843-353-3449 or send us an email through our website.