In Progressive Direct v. Groves, decided September 21, 2022, the SC Supreme Court (again) held that auto insurance does not pay for drive-by shootings or other gunshot injuries suffered while a person is in their automobile.
Although the Court has allowed insurance coverage for gunshot injuries in the past, no appellate opinion in SC has permitted coverage in the last 30 years. The Court’s message can be summarized as: “Yes, we allowed this a long time ago. No, we don’t allow this anymore. Stop trying, please.”
Underinsured or Uninsured Benefits do not Cover Gunshot Injuries
Gunshot injuries do not “arise out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an automobile;” therefore, they are not covered by an insured’s underinsured or uninsured benefits through their auto insurance policies.
The facts in Groves involved a terrible tragedy – according to the opinion, Jimi Redman pulled up to a stoplight next to Lynn Harrison’s car, pulled out a rifle, and shot her through the passenger side window of her car, killing her.
When Harrison’s husband was also murdered a few months later in an unrelated matter, their daughter, Shanna Groves, became the personal representative responsible for settling their estates. When Groves asked for compensation, Progressive filed a lawsuit asking for a declaratory judgment that there was no coverage for the incident because the injuries did not arise out of the use of the shooter’s vehicle.
The circuit court agreed with Progressive, but the SC Court of Appeals reversed – relying on older SC opinions and distinguishing more recent opinions that held there is no coverage for gunshot injuries in an automobile.
The Limits of Insurance Coverage in SC
Although media outlets covered the case with shocking headlines that suggested Geico was forced to pay the judgment, a careful reading of that court’s opinion shows that 1) the compensation was awarded in arbitration proceedings that Geico refused to defend, 2) Geico was never ordered to pay the judgment, and 3) Geico had filed a separate lawsuit asking the court to deny coverage.
Damages resulting from the transmission of an STD while in a vehicle are probably not covered for the same reason that damages from gunshot injuries are no longer covered in SC – they do not “arise out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an automobile.”
Gunshot Injuries do not “Arise Out of the Ownership, Maintenance, or Use of a Vehicle”
The most recent case where SC courts authorized auto insurance coverage for gunshot wounds was probably Wausau Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Howser, 309 S.C. 269, 422 S.E.2d 106 (1992), where an assailant chased the plaintiff in his vehicle and then shot the plaintiff from the vehicle.
Because the attacker used their vehicle to chase the victim and then to escape quickly and successfully, the court found that there was a “sufficient causal connection” between the use of the automobile and the victim’s injuries.
Since then, however, SC’s appellate courts have held that uninsured and underinsured policies do not cover gunshot injuries.
For example, in 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.
In State Farm v. Bookert, the court found that, 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.”
In Groves, the court acknowledges that their decisions have not been consistent on this issue, but the court says litigants should rely on the more recent opinions in Aytes, Bookert, and Groves, and disregard earlier opinions like Howser.
The Test to Determine Whether Injuries Arise Out of Ownership, Maintenance, or Use of a Vehicle
How do you know when there is coverage?
There is a three-pronged test for determining whether injuries arise out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a vehicle. The plaintiff must prove:
- A causal connection between the injury and the uninsured vehicle,
- There is no “intervening act” that breaks the chain of causation, and
- The uninsured vehicle was used for transportation at the time of the incident.
To determine whether there was a causal connection between the injury and the vehicle, the plaintiff must also prove:
- The vehicle was an “active accessory to the assault,”
- There is something “less than proximate cause but more than mere site of the injury,” and
- The injury was foreseeable given the normal use of an automobile.
Gunshot injuries and drive-by shootings are not reasonably foreseeable, and, in many cases, the automobile is simply the place where the shooting happened (the mere site of the injury); therefore, in most cases, there is no causal connection between the injury and the vehicle.
Furthermore, the Court has held that the firing of a gun is “an act of independent significance breaking the causal chain,” which also means that there is no insurance coverage.
Can there ever be insurance coverage for a gunshot injury? A scenario may arise that meets all of the above factors, but the Court in Groves is clear that, in most cases, they will no longer approve uninsured coverage for gunshot injuries in automobiles.
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.