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Who hit what and when?

Who hit what and when?

November 27
08:09 2018

Who hit what and when?

On the evening of October 13, 2014, Jeremy Drouillard, an emergency medical technician, was involved in a single-vehicle accident while riding as a passenger in an ambulance driven by his partner, Angelica Schoenberg. Schoenberg and Drouillard were traveling in “lights and sirens mode” on their way to a service call. Schoenberg opined that she was driving less than 45 miles per hour when the ambulance suddenly struck something in an intersection. She did not know what she struck until she exited the ambulance and saw drywall dust and debris scattered in the roadway. As a result of the accident, Drouillard suffered injuries to his lumbar spine and eventually became unable to work.

The events surrounding the accident were witnessed by three bystanders who lived near the intersection. According to the bystanders, a white pickup truck crossed the intersection in front of the ambulance. The rapid acceleration of the truck caused a large quantity of building materials to fall from the truck’s bed or trailer into the roadway, blocking both lanes. Shortly thereafter the ambulance entered the intersection and struck the building materials.

Drouillard’s employer maintained insurance for the ambulance through a policy issued by American Alternative Insurance Corporation (AAIC) that included an endorsement for Michigan uninsured motorist coverage. The endorsement stated that AAIC would pay all amounts an insured was entitled to recover from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle. The policy defined “uninsured motor vehicle” as:

“Uninsured motor vehicle” means a land motor vehicle or “trailer”:

  1. That is a hit-and-run vehicle and neither the driver nor owner can be identified. The vehicle must hit, or cause an object to hit, an “insured,” a covered “auto” or a vehicle an “insured” is “occupying.” If there is no direct physical contact with the hit-and-run vehicle, the facts of the “accident” must be corroborated by competent evidence, other than the testimony of any person having a claim under this or any similar insuranceas the result of such “accident.”

Drouillard filed suit against AAIC seeking uninsured motorist benefits pursuant to the policy terms. AAIC admitted that Drouillard was an “insured” who would qualify for uninsured motorist benefits if all other terms and conditions were satisfied, but AAIC maintained that benefits were not available to Drouillard because no “uninsured motor vehicle” was involved in the accident. AAIC moved for summary disposition on this basis, arguing that the pickup truck did not qualify as a hit-and-run vehicle and that it did not cause an object to hit the insured ambulance. The court rejected both arguments, and AAIC appealed.

On appeal, AAIC argued that it was entitled to summary disposition because there was no evidence that an “uninsured motor vehicle” was involved in the accident under the policy definition of an uninsured motor vehicle as a “hit-and-run vehicle.” Specifically, AAIC argued that the common usage of the phrase “hit-and-run” denotes knowledge on the part of the driver, and AAIC called attention to statutes that establish criminal penalties for a “driver of a vehicle who knows or who has reason to believe that he or she has been involved in an accident” but fails to stop at the scene.

Drouillard contended that the phrase “hit-and-run” did not involve a knowledge component and suggested that a hit-and-run vehicle is involved in an accident whenever neither the driver nor the owner of the vehicle can be identified.

Next, AAIC argued that the plain language of the policy stated that it provided coverage in these circumstances only if the pickup truck caused an object to hit the insured ambulance. Therefore, according to AAIC, it was entitled to summary disposition because the unrefuted evidence demonstrated that the ambulance struck the stationary pile of building materials—the building materials did not strike the ambulance.

As it did in the trial court, AAIC asked the appellate court to assume for purposes of its appeal that a substantial nexus existed among the pickup truck, the building materials, and the ambulance’s impact with the materials. The court agreed with AAIC’s contention that the trial court erred by concluding that it was bound to follow the outcome in a previous case. Although that case involved the same policy language and substantially similar facts, the court said it did not turn on the same issue—i.e., how to give effect to the language requiring that the hit-and-run vehicle “cause an object to hit” the insured, an insured vehicle, or a vehicle occupied by an insured. Therefore that case was not dispositive of the issue raised by AAIC.

Taking into account a dictionary definition of the verb “to hit,” the court concluded that the plain language of the policy provided uninsured motorist coverage to Drouillard only if the unidentified pickup truck caused an object to hit the insured ambulance, and not vice versa. Importantly, the court noted, Drouillard and Schoenberg both admitted that the building materials were stationary at the time of the accident, and Schoenberg agreed that, as the driver of the ambulance, she struck the materials in the roadway. Therefore this was not a situation in which a hit-and-run vehicle caused an object to hit the insured ambulance, and Drouillard was not entitled to uninsured motorist benefits under the terms of the policy.

The lower court’s judgment was reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting summary disposition in favor of AAIC.

Drouillard vs. American Alternative Insurance Corporation-Court of Appeals of Michigan-No. 334977-February 27, 2018.

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