This summer, a plaintiff appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court a bench trial judgment for defendant, GEICO, in an underinsured motorist (UM) insurance case. Plaintiff was injured after leaving her car to provide aid to victims of a car crash. The state high court held that the plaintiff was entitled to UM coverage under the vehicle’s policy in light of Rhode Island insurance law requiring her to provide aid.
Before trial, the parties both filed for judgment as a matter of law, arguing that the only issue was whether the plaintiff was “occupying” her car at the time of the injury and that there were no genuine issues of material fact. Defendant argued that the plaintiff could not recover based on the unequivocal language of GEICO’s policy. Plaintiff argued that she was covered due to the broad definition of “occupying” outlined by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in General Accident Insurance Co. of America v. Olivier.
The trial judge analyzed “occupying” based on the four prong test in Olivier, but ultimately concluded the plaintiff didn’t prove a causal connection between her insured car and her injuries. Thus, the trial judge held that the plaintiff couldn’t recover UM benefits because the first Olivier prong wasn’t satisfied. Plaintiff appealed.
Plaintiff argued that the trial court misinterpreted the first Olivier prong. She agreed with the trial judge as to the second prong, that she was in reasonably close proximity to the car when she was injured. Plaintiff asked the court to abandon Olivier‘s third prong, which requires the person who sustained the injury to be “vehicle oriented” at the time of the injury. She argued this prong was confusing, ambiguous, and useless. Regarding the fourth Olivier prong, the plaintiff asked the court to hold that acting as a Good Samaritan amounts to an “essential transaction” for the purposes of UM coverage under Rhode Island law.
Defendant argued that the plaintiff had waived her argument base don § 11-56-1 by failing to raise it at trial. Alternatively, the defendant argued that a Good Samaritan can be “occupying” the car only if the four Olivier prongs are met and that the trial judge correctly found that they were not.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court disagreed with the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff had ultimately waived her argument, reasoning that the plaintiff had made her Good Samaritan argument before the lower court. In fact, the lower court’s decision was filled with references to the plaintiff’s Good Samaritan rescue efforts.
The court then addressed whether, in light of § 11-56-1, a Good Samaritan who was injured while providing assistance can be considered to be “occupying” the car for the purposes of UM coverage.
The first prong of Olivier requires a causal connection between the injury and the use of the insured car. The court held that the facts evidenced a connection between the car and the plaintiff’s injuries because the plaintiff was inside the car when she heard the collision and went to provide aid.
The state high court did not address the second Olivier prong because the trial judge found this element to be satisfied and neither party disputed this holding. Thus, the court moved to the third prong, requiring that the plaintiff be vehicle-oriented at the time of the injury. The court held that the plaintiff’s exit from the car was a temporary interruption in an otherwise unfinished trip and therefore this prong was satisfied.
Regarding the fourth prong, which requires the plaintiff to be engaged in a transaction necessary to car’s use at the time of the injury, the court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that a willingness to render aid at the scene of a motor vehicle collision as a Good Samaritan is inherently part of the use of a motor vehicle in Rhode Island.
In sum, pursuant to Olivier, the Rhode Island Supreme Court concluded that the plaintiff was occupying her insured car for purposes of UM coverage when she was injured while providing aid as a Good Samaritan. Thus, the plaintiff could recover under the terms of the GEICO policy.
At Bilodeau Capalbo, LLC, our experienced insurance attorneys are ready to help Rhode Island residents navigate their legal issues. Call (401) 400-8182 or schedule your complimentary consultation today.
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