Maine Supreme Judicial Court: Dog Bite Not Covered by Auto Accident Policy

Auto insurance policies generally cover sudden or unexpected injuries that involve an automobile. This doesn’t always necessarily mean that the only incidents that would be covered would be those involving a vehicle-on-vehicle collision while at least one of the cars is in motion. However, neither can it mean, according to a recent Maine Supreme Judicial Court opinion, a Maine dog bite that did not specifically arise from the use of the automobile.

A similar case arose in 1987, with the same court deciding in Union Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Ins. that a gunshot wound incurred when a weapon in the back of a vehicle was accidentally discharged was not covered under the auto insurance policy.

In the more recent case, the dog in question was co-owned by two unmarried individuals. While the female co-owner of the dog had an auto insurance policy that covered her and her vehicle, the male co-owner was operating one of his employer’s cars to meet the plaintiff, who had purchased an old pickup truck from the dog owner’s son. The dog owner brought his dog with him in the car. While transferring the pickup truck, someone (it is disputed who exactly it was, but the issue isn’t material) opened the door to the vehicle with the dog in it. The dog, without leaving the vehicle, bit the plaintiff in the face.

The plaintiff filed a Maine dog bite lawsuit against both co-owners of the dog. The auto insurance company that held the policy for the female dog owner’s auto insurance declined to defend or indemnify her. Both parties in that lawsuit reached a stipulation agreement for a judgment of $100,000 – meaning that would be awarded regardless of the trial’s outcome.

Later, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the auto insurer, seeking to satisfy that $100,000 judgment through the auto insurance policy. The trial court granted the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment, finding that based on the definition of the policy, the female dog owner was not an “insured” for the purposes of the plaintiff’s injury lawsuit, and furthermore the plaintiff’s injury didn’t arise from an auto accident, as required by the policy.

The plaintiff appealed. She bore the burden of showing the damages she was awarded in the action fell within the scope of the defendant’s auto insurance policy. The policy obligated the insurer to indemnify the insured for any bodily injury for which the insured was legally responsible because of an auto accident. The policy failed to define what an “auto accident” was, but the plaintiff argued the term was broad enough to include a dog bite that happened in or near a car because, she asserted, the bite arose out of the use of the vehicle.

The state high court, however, concluded otherwise when interpreting the term “auto accident” according to its plain and commonly accepted meaning. The term “auto accident,” the court held, was an unambiguous term that means an unintended and unforeseen injury that occurs involving an automobile. From the perspective of an average person, the term “auto accident” – while broader than just a car crash or collision – doesn’t stretch so far as to include a personal injury from a dog bite that occurred in a car, when there was no causal connection between the injury and a vehicle that was not in operation.

Although the plaintiff argued her bodily injuries did result in recoverable damages because they involved the use of a car, the court determined that the use of a car was not the only controlling factor here. Therefore, the claim was not covered by the auto insurance policy, and the summary judgment for the defendant insurer was upheld.

If you are a victim of a Bangor car accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

Kelley v. Northeast Insurance Co., July 25, 2017, Maine Supreme Judicial Court

More Blog Entries:

Summer Segway Tours in Maine May Pose Risk of Injuries, July 26, 2017, Bangor Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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