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Media Alerts - Bennett v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. - Sixth Circuit
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October 21, 2013
  Bennett v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. - Sixth Circuit
Headline: Sixth Circuit holds that a pedestrian who was hit by a vehicle was an "occupant" of the vehicle and, therefore, entitled to coverage under the driver's insurance policy.

Area of Law: Contract Law; Insurance Law

Issue Presented: Did the district err in finding that a pedestrian was not an "occupant" of the vehicle that struck her when she landed on the hood of the vehicle after impact?

Brief Summary: A pedestrian was struck by a vehicle, which was insured by State Farm. The impact threw the pedestrian onto the hood of the vehicle, where she suffered additional injuries. The pedestrian sued State Farm, seeking a declaration that she was entitled to coverage under the vehicle's insurance policy. The district court found that the pedestrian was not an "occupant" of the vehicle and granted summary judgment in State Farm's favor. The pedestrian appealed, arguing that summary judgment was improper because State Farm defined "occupy" as "in, on, entering or alighting from." The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment in favor of the pedestrian.

Significance: The case exemplifies the importance of legal drafting and demonstrates that parties should carefully define each term of their agreement because a policy's defined term will control - not the term's ordinary meaning. The opinion also comments on civility, noting that State Farm's derisive tone in its brief only undermined its argument.

Extended Summary: A pedestrian was walking her dog when a vehicle struck her. The impact threw her onto the hood of the vehicle. The pedestrian sued the driver's insurance company, State Farm, seeking a declaration that she was covered under State Farm's policy as an "occupant" of the vehicle.

The district court held that the pedestrian was not an "occupant" under the insurance policy and granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm. The pedestrian appealed. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment for the pedestrian.

First, the Sixth Circuit noted that "occupants" are normally inside a vehicle - not on the hood of a vehicle. The court next explained that "parties to a contract can define its terms as they wish." Here, State Farm defined "occupying" as "in, on, entering or alighting from." Moreover, the parties had already stipulated to the following: (1) the driver's negligence caused the accident; (2) the impact threw the pedestrian onto the vehicle's hood; and (3) the pedestrian sustained further bodily injuries when she landed on the hood. Applying the policy's definition, the court found that the pedestrian was an "occupant" of the vehicle and, thus, entitled to coverage for the injuries suffered while on the hood of the car.

Finally, the Sixth Circuit rejected both of State Farm's arguments. First, State Farm argued that the court should follow other decisions where courts have held that pedestrians are not "occupants" of the vehicles that struck them. The Sixth Circuit rejected State Farm's argument, noting that all of the prior cases were factually distinguishable and explaining that courts "do not construe contractual provisions in gross"; they interpret each contract individually, according to its terms.

Second, State Farm argued that to determine if the pedestrian was an "occupant" of the vehicle, the court should have asked whether she had some "intrinsic relationship" with the vehicle, rather than whether she was "on" it. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, explaining that the intrinsic-relationship test is one of several tests that Ohio courts use "where a gray area exists concerning whether a person was" an "occupant" of a vehicle. The court concluded that there was no gray area because State Farm had clearly defined the term "occupy." Thus, the Sixth Circuit reversed the district court's grant of summary judgment and remanded the case with instructions to enter judgment for the pedestrian.

Link to Full Opinion: http://www.ca6.uscourts.gov/op...13a0283p-06.pdf


Panel: Cole, Kethledge, and Stranch

Date of Issued Opinion: September 24, 2013

Docket Number: 13-3047

Decided: Reversed and remanded.

Case Alert Author: Shaun Kelley

Counsel: ON BRIEF: Mark C. Willis, Matthew L. Rizzi, Jr., WILLIS & WILLIS CO., L.P.A., Akron, Ohio, for Appellants. Richard M. Garner, DAVIS & YOUNG, Westerville,
Ohio, Gregory H. Collins, DAVIS & YOUNG, Akron, Ohio, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Circuit Judge Kethledge

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Tammy Asher

    Posted By: Mark Cooney @ 10/21/2013 09:25 AM     6th Circuit  

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