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The Rough Notes Company Inc.



May 27
12:18 2021

Wheels up

In February 2015, Shellie Oehler, as executor of the estate of Jeffrey Oehler, filed a complaint against Oehler’s Home Care (OHC) for the wrongful death of Jeffrey. The complaint stated that employees of OHC transported Jeffrey, a spastic quadriplegic who was confined to a wheelchair, to Sam’s Club in April 2013 and “were in the process of preparing [Jeffrey] for transfer into his van seat when they failed to prevent a fall forward from his wheelchair.” Jeffrey hit his head on the pavement and was taken to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a fracture in his neck. He died two days later.

In April 2015, OHC’s businessowners insurer, Country Mutual Insurance Company, filed a declaratory judgment action against OHC, Shellie Oehler individually, and the estate of Jeffrey Oehler. Country Mutual alleged that its businessowners policy contained two exclusions that relieved it of the duty to defend OHC against the underlying complaint.

First, the insurer asserted that the auto exclusion excluded all claims related to “bodily injury or property damage arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any auto owned or operated by any insured.” Country Mutual then contended that the accident arose out of OHC’s employees rendering “professional services,” which were excluded from coverage.

The parties filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that the policy either covered or did not cover the accident as a matter of law. The trial court denied these motions. Thereafter, Beth Yoder was substituted as executor of Jeffrey’s estate, and the court substituted her as a party defendant.

In April 2018, the estate filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued that the businessowners policy covered the accident. In support of its motion, the estate attached a copy of the underlying complaint, a copy of the businessowners policy, and the depositions of Shellie and OHC employees Shawna Lewis and Charleston Balf.

Shellie testified that she started OHCin 1992 as a home healthcare service to provide assistance solely to Jeffrey, who in 1983 was injured in a work-related incident that rendered him a spastic quadriplegic. Shellie was the sole shareholder and president of OHC and was responsible for hiring employees.

The estate argued that Country Mutual had a duty to defend under the businessowners policy and that neither the auto nor the professional services exclusion applied. In particular, the estate contended that the accident did not arise out of the “use” of an automobile because the van was not being operated at the time of Jeffrey’s fall.

The estate also argued that the incident was not related to the loading or unloading of the van. The estate acknowledged that the auto exclusion defined “use” as including loading and unloading but pointed out that the policy specifically defined loading and unloading as “the handling of property.” The estate asserted that because Jeffrey was not property, the exception did not apply. Thus the estate concluded that viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Country Mutual, the underlying complaint asserted a cause of action that was potentially within the policy’s coverage, and therefore Country Mutual had a duty to defend.

The estate further argued that the professional services exception did not apply because Lewis and Balf were not using “specialized knowledge” when they were preparing to place Jeffrey in the van. Instead, the only knowledge that was required was the knowledge of how to move a person from one place to another. Therefore, because Lewis and Balf both testified that they were not providing medical or nursing care at the time of the accident, the professional services exclusion did not apply.

Later in April 2018, Country Mutual filed a motion for summary judgment. Country Mutual relied on the same documents and depositions as the estate did, and argued they showed that the accident was excluded from coverage under either the auto exclusion or the professional services exclusion.

In January 2019, the trial court concluded that the auto and professional services exclusions in the businessowners policy did not apply; thus, it granted summary judgment in favor of the estate, the estate’s executor, and OHC with respect to the businessowners policy. Country Mutual appealed.

On appeal, Country Mutual argued that the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment in favor of the estate, its executor, and OHC and denied Country Mutual’s motion for summary judgment because the accident involved (1) the use of a vehicle and (2) the rendering of professional services, both of which were excluded from coverage under the businessowners policy. The appellate court agreed with the insurer’s first argument and reversed the trial court’s judgment.

The court found that at the time of the accident, Jeffrey clearly was “using” the van in the same way everyone else does when attempting to enter a vehicle. Therefore his injuries necessarily flowed from his use of the van, and the auto exclusion applied.

Country Mutual Insurance Company v. Oehler’s Home Care, Inc.—Appellate Court of Illinois, Fourth District—October 21, 2019—No. 4-19-008

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