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Car Accidents - Verdicts & Settlements

Settlement in Case of Township Worker Crushed to Death by Underinsured Vehicle

Automobile Insurance - UIM Coverage - Occupancy - Brush Clearing - Dump Truck

Selective Ins. Co. of America v. Jaskoloka, PICS Case No. 03-1937 (M. D. Pa. Nov. 25, 2003) Munley, J. (14 pages).

A township worker, crushed co death by an underinsured vehicle chat pinned her against the dump truck she was loading, was an occupant of the dump truck under the township's insurance policy because the worker's outside brush loading was essential to the use of the truck. Motion for summary judgment granted.

Decedent, an employee of Tobyhanna Township Department of Public Works, was working on the highway, clearing brush alongside the road and loading it into a dump truck. An underinsured driver struck her and crushed her between his vehicle and the back of the truck. Decedent died as the result of this accident.

The township had an insurance policy issued by Selective Insurance Co. of America (Selective). Defendant, decedent's estate, made a claim upon Selective to recover UIM bene-fits, which were worth $1 million.

Selective filed a declaratory judgment action. It contended that defendant was not entitled co UIM benefits because decedent was not covered by the "occupant" language in the township's policy. Section B.3 of the policy defined "insured" in pertinent part as "[a]nyone else 'occupying' a covered 'motor vehicle[.]"' According to Selective, decedent was not occupying a covered motor vehicle at the time of the accident. The parties. filed cross-motions for summary judgment.
In Utica Ins. Co. v. Contrisciane, 473 A.2d 1005 (Pa. 1984), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court set forth four factors that must be established for a person to be considered "occupying" a vehicle: (1.) there must be a causal relation or connection between the injury and the use of the vehicle; (2) the person asserting coverage must be in a reasonably close geographic proximity; (3) the person must be vehicle oriented, rather than highway or sidewalk oriented; and (4)'the person must be engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle.
The parties did not dispute decedent's proximity to the truck, but they disputed decedent's fulfillment of the remaining Utica factors.

Decedent fulfilled the first, third and fourth Utica factors, the district court concluded. Evidence that decedent was crushed against the insured township vehicle was "more than sufficient" to establish a causal connection between her injury and the use of the township's vehicle, the court determined.

Furthermore, decedent was vehicle-oriented at the time of the accident. When decedent was struck, she was in contact with the truck's rear since she was loading brush. The weight of the evidence also established that the vehicle was running at the time of the accident and that decedent repeatedly re-entered the truck and drove it forward as she and others cleared brush.

Finally, decedent was engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the truck. "When the decedent was loading the truck with brush, she was necessarily engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle because that was the sole and exclusive purpose for which she was using the dump truck[,]" the court explained.

Accordingly, the court concluded that decedent was covered under Section B.3 of the policy. It, therefore, granted defendant's motion for summary judgment and denied that of Selective.


Pennsylvania Law Weekly, 12/22/03

Roadside Municipal Worker Considered Vehicle Occupant
Federal judge permits estate to receive UIM benefits under township's policy

BY: CHRISTOPHER LILIENTHAL
Of the Law Weekly

A federal district just has ruled that a municipal employee, clearing brush from the roadside and loading it into the back of a township dump truck, must be considered a vehicle occupant under the municipality's insurance policy, entitling her estate to underinsured motorist benefits for an accident that claimed her life.

The employee, Linda Jaskoloka, was killed when a passing vehicle struck her, crusher her body against the dump truck she was using to remove roadside brush in Tobyhanna Township, Monroe County. After recovering $15,000 from the tortfeasor, Jaskoloka's estate sought UIM benefits under the township's policy worth $1 million.

The Selective Insurance Co. of America, which issued the township's policy, challenged the UIM claim in a declaratory judgment action filed with the Middle District Court of Pennsylvania in April 2002, arguing that Jaskoloka did not meet the definition of a vehicle occupant, as that term is defined by Pennsylvania case law.

But writing for the court in Selective Insurance Co. of America v. Jaskoloka, PICS Case No. 03-1937 (M.D. Pa. Nov. 25, 2003) Munley, J. (14 pages), U.S. District Judge James M. Munley held that Jaskoloka did indeed meet the four factors set forth by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in determining whether a person was "occupying" a vehicle at the time of an accident.

In Utica Insurance Co. v. Contrisciane, 473 A.2d 1005 (Pa. 1984), the high court said that in order for one to be considered an occupant of a covered motor vehicle, "(1) there [must be] a casual relation or connection between the injury and the use of the insured vehicle; (2) the person asserting coverage must be in a reasonably close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle, although the person need not be actually touching it; (3) the person must be vehicle oriented rather than highway or sidewalk oriented at the time; and (4) the person must also be engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle at the time."

While neither party disputed that Jaskoloka was in close proximity to the dump truck at the time of the accident, Selective Insurance contested the estate's claims that the decedent met the other requirements set forth in Utica.

First, the insurer contended that there was no causal connection between Jaskoloka's fatal injuries and the use of the insured vehicle.

Relying on Great American Insurance Co. v. Zukowski, No. 950C4470, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8796 (E.D. Pa. 1996), attorneys James C. Haggerty and Suzanne T. Tighe of Swartz Campbell in Philadelphia argued that there was no evidence that Jaskoloka was entering or exiting the vehicle at the time of the accident. "The decedent, during the accident, may have been crushed against the insured Township vehicle," the attorneys wrote in their brief, "however, this is not sufficient to establish a causal connection."

But Munley disagreed, saying that the insurer's reliance on Zukowski was misplaced.

"There, the individual was 'approximately 100 yards away from the vehicle' and the court concluded that there was 'no evidence that would like the parked, locked vehicle to the actions of the hit-and-run driver,'" Munley said, quoting Zukowski. "Here, on the other hand, there is substantial evidence that links the township truck to [the vehicle that struck Jaskoloka] and the decedent's fatal injuries."

"Evidence that the decedent was 'crushed against the insured Township vehicle,'" Munley continued, quoting the plaintiff's brief, "is more than sufficient to establish a causal connection between her injury and the cause of the township's vehicle."

Selective Insurance also argued that Jaskoloka was highway oriented, rather than vehicle oriented, as she removed brush from the side of the road and loaded into the back of the dump truck. Munley disagreed.

Turning to the circumstances at issue in Utica, Munley said that Pennsylvania courts have found individuals to be vehicle oriented even after they have emerged from an automobile.

In Utica, the plaintiff's decedent exited his vehicle and approached a police car to provide information related to a car accident. While he was standing next to the squad car, he was struck by an uninsured motorist and killed.

The Supreme Court concluded that the decedent was vehicle oriented at the time of the accident, as he remained in lawful possession of his vehicle stopped on the roadside and anticipated the eventual continuance of his drive.

"At all times decedent was engaged in transactions essential to his continued use of the vehicle," the justices wrote in Utica, "and it was only because of the mandated requirements of the statute and the police officer that decedent found himself physically out of contact with his vehicle."

Similarly in this case, Munley said, Jaskoloka was in lawful possession of the dump truck at the time of the accident. "There is sufficient evidence to establish that the truck was running at the time of the accident in anticipation of their continuing use of it to transport cleared brush," the judge wrote. "Moreover, the decedent was physically in contact with the truck when she was struck."
Selective Insurance countered that in a case such as Utica, the decedent was required to be outside his vehicle by the law, rather than as a condition of his employment. But Munley said this was an artificial distinction.

"Whether motivated to comply with a statute or to earn a paycheck, each of these individuals had compelling reasons to be outside their vehicles," he said.

"We find that the decedent's actions in the present case in reaching into the dump truck to load it were unequivocally connected with, and intimately tied to, the use of the vehicle."

Addressing the final Utica factor, Selective Insurance, relying on Huber v. Erie Insurance Exchange, 587 A.2d 333 (Pa. Super. 1991), argued that loading a vehicle is not an operation essential to the use of an automobile.

But, again, Munley said the insurer's reliance on Huber was misplaced, for that case involved a claim for first-party benefits under a policy that excluded such benefits for injuries sustained while loading or unloading a motor vehicle.

"This is distinguishable from the present case where the court has already found a 'causal connection between the motor vehicle and the injury' inasmuch as the decedent was required to load the truck as part of her job duties; was using th truck for the sole and exclusive purpose of loading brush; was leaning into the back of the truck; and was crushed against the truck," Munley wrote.

Jaskoloka could not have performed the very work she was employed to do on that roadside without the dump truck, the judge said.

"When the decedent was loading the truck with brush, she was necessarily engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle because that was the sole and exclusive purpose for which she was using the dump truck," he wrote. ". . .Thus, her presence outside the vehicle was required by the very purpose for which she was using the vehicle."

Joseph A. Quinn, David A. Aikens, Jr.. and Michael J. Kowalski of Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn in Kingston represented Jaskoloka's estate.

PLEASE NOTE: Every case is fact specific, and these results do not guaranty the same results will be obtained in a different case.