A woman who had been hospitalized and her treating physician determined that the woman was nearing the end of her life. The treating physician recommended to the woman’s niece that she arrange for palliative care for her aunt. The niece contracted for hospice care for her aunt at the aunt's home. Hospice arranged for a company providing handicapped accessible van transportation services to transport the aunt from the hospital to her home. A company handicapped accessible van, driven by a company driver, drove to the hospital as scheduled. The aunt, who was seated in a Geri-chair, was loaded into the van and the company driver transported her safely to her residence, where her niece was waiting.
Prior to the van's arrival, the niece had received two telephone calls asking whether a ramp would be needed to negotiate the steps to the aunt's home, and she responded that a ramp would be needed. When the van arrived with the aunt, there was no ramp.
The company driver used the van's hydraulic lift to lower the aunt, in the Geri-chair, from the van to the driveway and removed the Geri-chair from the van's lift. Shortly thereafter, it began to rain. The company driver rolled the aunt up a sidewalk to the house's front steps. Although the Geri-chair had wheels, it was not appropriate for transporting the aunt up the steps and into the house, so the company driver asked the niece if she had a wheelchair. She went into the house and rolled a wheelchair onto the porch and the company driver carried it down the steps. The aunt was transferred from the Geri-chair to the wheelchair without sustaining any injury. The company driver then proceeded to ascend the steps backwards and pull the wheelchair, facing backwards, up the steps. After going up the first step, the aunt started sliding out of the wheelchair. The niece grabbed one of her legs to keep her from sliding out of the chair, and the company driver put his arm around the aunt and pulled the wheelchair up the second step. Once they were on the porch, the niece discovered that her aunt had sustained a gash on her leg. The series of events from the time the aunt arrived at her home until the injury lasted approximately five minutes. The aunt passed away two days later.
The niece, as executor of her aunt’s estate, filed a suit asserting that negligence on the part of the hospice and the company providing handicapped-accessible van transportation services proximately resulted in her aunt's injuries and death. The company providing handicapped-accessible van transportation services had a business automobile insurance policy which insured against liability for damages caused by an accident and resulting from the ownership, maintenance or use of a covered vehicle. The insurer brought a declaratory judgment action against the insured and the niece seeking a determination of its obligations to provide coverage pursuant to the business automobile liability insurance policy issued to insured. The insurer argued that the policy provided no coverage to the insured for the aunt’s injury and death. The insurer and the niece filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
The Forsyth County Superior Court granted summary judgment in favor of the executor and denied the insurer's summary judgment motion.
The Court of Appeals of North Carolina affirmed. The court held that summary judgment was the appropriate procedure for the resolution of the action; the insurance policy provided coverage for the insured's liability, if any, with respect to the passenger's injury; and the insurer's argument for reformation of the policy to provide only the statutorily-mandated minimum coverage amount was beyond the scope of the Declaratory Judgment Act (DJA).
Summary judgment was the appropriate procedure for the resolution of the action. While genuine issues of fact may have existed that were material to the insured's alleged negligence and liability for the aunt's injury, none of those factual issues were material to the question of whether the policy provided coverage to the insured for any such liability.
The insurance policy provided coverage for the insured's liability, if any, with respect to the passenger's injury. The policy provided protection to the insured against liability imposed upon it for all damages caused by acts done in connection with or arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the handicapped accessible van. The court held that the test for determining whether a vehicle liability policy provides coverage for an accident is whether there was a causal connection between the use of the vehicle and the accident. The court found that there was a sufficient causal connection between the insured's use of the handicapped accessible van to transport the aunt from the hospital to her home and the aunt's injury and death. The court noted that the van was intended for use, on the date of the woman's injury, to transport her for palliative home care. Because she was unable to ambulate, the court inferred that the use of the insured van included moving her into her residence as a part of the transport service. The insured used the van's hydraulic lift to lower her from the van to the driveway. The series of events from the time that the van arrived at her home until her injury lasted approximately five minutes. The court concluded that the business automobile liability policy provided coverage for the insured's liability, if any, with respect to the aunt's injury.
The insurer's argument for reformation of the policy to provide only the statutorily-mandated minimum coverage amount was beyond the scope of the DJA. The insurer argued that after the trial court found that the insurance policy covered the aunt's injury, the trial court should have reformed the policy to require payment of only the statutorily mandated minimum coverage amount. This argument was based on the interaction between the language of the insurance policy and the more stringent requirements of statutory law. The DJA applied to the interpretation of written instruments, not the modification of a written instrument by statute, which involved changing rather than merely interpreting the policy’s language.
The Court of Appeals of North Carolina affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the executor and denial of the insurer's summary judgment motion.
See: Integon Nat. Ins. Co. v. Helping Hands Specialized Transport, Inc., 2014 WL 1797471 (N.C.App., May 6, 2014)(not designated for publication).