ATV Owner’s Insurer Held Not Liable to Mississippi Woman Injured in Louisiana Crash

2013 Yamaha RhinoIf you’ve been injured in a vehicle accident, such as an ATV crash, there may be multiple parties that could, depending on the facts of your case, be liable for your injuries. They might include the vehicle manufacturer, the driver, the vehicle owner, or the owner of the property where the crash occurred. In a recent case involving a woman whose arm was crushed in an ATV accident on a public street, the courts decided that she could not pursue a claim against the insurance company of the ATV’s owner. Due to who was driving and where the accident took place, the Louisiana Court of Appeal decided that the insurance company was, in this circumstance, entitled to conclude that its insurance policies did not cover the accident.

The woman’s injuries arose from a weekend birthday celebration gone wrong. Danielle Schelmety, her boyfriend, Michael Smith, and Smith’s roommate, James Johnson, decided to drive from their law school in Jackson, Miss. to Ruston, La. to attend a crawfish boil as part of Smith’s birthday celebration. Once in Ruston, the trio stayed at the home of Smith’s parents for the weekend. On Friday, Johnson took Schelmety for a ride in a Yamaha Rhino (a type of “side-by-side” four-wheel ATV) owned by the Smiths, with the Smiths’ permission. Johnson drove along several public streets and, while navigating a turn at the end of a cul-de-sac, flipped the vehicle, which pinned Schelmety’s arm to the ground. The accident shattered and crushed her forearm, wrist, and hand.

The Smith parents’ insurance company, Safeco Insurance of America, denied a claim filed by the Smiths related to Schelmety’s injuries. Schelmety decided to sue. In addition to pursuing Johnson and the ATV’s manufacturer, she also made a claim against Safeco. Smith’s parents, additionally, made a third-party demand against Safeco.

The insurance company asked the court to award it summary judgment. Safeco advanced the same reasoning it stated in denying the claims originally, which was that the accident did not occur at an “insured location” covered within the terms of the homeowners’ policy, and the injury could not be covered under the Smiths’ “umbrella” policy because Johnson was was neither a relative nor a resident of the Smith household.

The trial court agreed and issued judgment in favor of the insurance company. Schelmety appealed but again lost. The appeals court did not accept the injured woman’s assertion that the term “resident” was ambiguous in the insurance policy and that Johnson qualified as a resident of the Smith household, which would have made him covered under the Smiths’ umbrella policy. Unfortunately for Schelmety, the court decided that the word “resident,” as used in the policy, was not ambiguous, and it did not permit the sort of broad definition that Schelmety asserted. Johnson was an adult friend of the Smiths’ adult son, who was merely staying in their home for the weekend. That did not make him a “person who is in the care of” the Smiths. Since he also was neither named in the policy nor a relative of the Smiths, he fit none of the criteria for being a covered person under the policy.

Louisiana case law has defined a resident to be someone who has a “physical presence with the intention to continue living” at a particular place. Johnson’s weekend stay at the Smith home did not fit this definition.

The appeals court also rejected the injured woman’s argument that the cul-de-sac should have counted as an “insured location.” The court in Schelmety’s case followed a similar reasoning as that of several other courts, deciding that public streets, even those “adjacent to or even used in connection with the residence,” do not count as insured locations under an insured person’s homeowners policy. With Schelmety’s injury, Johnson crashed the ATV on a public street a half-mile away from the Smith home. Under a reasonable reading of the policy, this could not be considered as an insured location.

In this particular case, the injured woman was unable to pursue her claim against the Smiths’ insurance company. However, a very specific set of facts worked against her. Her driver happened to be a mere weekend house guest, the accident happened to take place on a public road, and the policy happened to have a particular wording that bolstered Safeco’s case. For many other people injured in vehicle or ATV accidents, the facts of their cases may be much less unfavorable and may permit a broader range of recovery. That’s why it is so important, if you’ve been hurt in an accident, to contact legal counsel right away. The hardworking Louisiana ATV accident attorneys at the Cardone Law Firm have many years helping people hurt in accidents and are here to aid you with your case.

For your confidential consultation, contact us online or phone Cardone at 1-888-89-CARDONE (1-888-892-2736).

More Blog Posts:

Mother’s Evidence Not Enough to Secure Damages Award for Children in Jefferson Parish Crash Case, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, April 4, 2016

Louisiana Jury Entitled to Rule Against Injured Driver Despite Multiple Doctors’ Testimony at Trial, Louisiana Injury Lawyers Blog, Aug. 28, 2015

Photo credit: ATV pictures at atv-pictures.blogspot.ca