Providence County Superior Court
For Plaintiff: Joseph J. Altieri, Esq.
For Defendant: Mark P. Dolan, Esq.
Plaintiff Amberleigh Hudson (Ms. Hudson or Plaintiff) has filed a two-count complaint against Defendant Geico Insurance Agency, Inc., d/b/a Geico General Insurance Company (GEICO or Defendant). Ms. Hudson seeks compensation for injuries she alleges to have sustained on February 12, 2012 when she was struck in a roadway by a vehicle operated by Tara Konturas (the underinsured motorist). Plaintiff brings her claim under the provisions of an underinsured motorist policy issued by GEICO to the owner of a motor vehicle in which she had been a passenger. For its part, Defendant denies Plaintiff's claim under the policy and asserts that she is not entitled to recover because she was not occupying the insured vehicle at the time of her accident.
This case was reached for trial on June 17, 2015. The parties submitted a joint statement of undisputed facts and seek a ruling from the Court on the legal issue of whether Ms. Hudson was an occupant in the insured vehicle at the time of her accident as that term is defined by the policy and applicable law. The parties waived a jury trial by agreement and submitted the case to the Court on this limited issue.
After consideration of the undisputed facts, the policy language, and applicable law, this Court finds that Ms. Hudson was not an occupant of the insured vehicle at the time of her accident with the underinsured motorist, and thus, she is not entitled to recover under that policy.
The parties agreed to a set of stipulated facts. Ms. Hudson and her boyfriend at the time, Gregory Hurst (Mr. Hurst), sat in Mr. Hurst's Saab parked outside the Amazing Super Store on Allens Avenue in Providence, Rhode Island. While the pair planned to enter the store, they lingered in the car, chatting idly. (Statement of Stip. Facts ¶ 4.) After one to two minutes, a loud bang from a motor vehicle accident cut their conversation short. Upon hearing the crash, Mr. Hurst turned off the car, which had been in "park, " and both he and Ms. Hudson exited the vehicle. (Hurst Dep. 12:16-18, July 26, 2013.) Witnessing the aftermath of a car accident on an adjacent street, they proceeded to travel across the parking lot, then past the sidewalk and two lanes of traffic in order to help those injured in the collision. (Statement of Stip. Facts ¶ 8.) A passing vehicle struck Ms. Hudson while she was rendering assistance, breaking her leg. (Hudson Dep. 34:16-20.)
In the following months, Ms. Hudson settled a claim against the operator of the vehicle that hit her. Id. at 25:1-6. Plaintiff claims that the settlement did not fully compensate her for the injuries sustained. As such, she sought further relief from Mr. Hurst's automobile insurance carrier, GEICO. Mr. Hurst insured his Saab through a policy issued by GEICO-specifically, Policy No. 4230-93-68-76 (the GEICO policy). (Statement of Stip. Facts ¶ 16.) Underinsured Motorists coverage provided by the GEICO policy affords protection for those "occupying an owned auto" of the insured at the time of injury. (GEICO policy, § IV at ¶ 5.) The policy defines "occupying" as "in, upon entering into or alighting from." Id. at ¶ 5. GEICO denied Plaintiff's claim, stating that she was not occupying the Saab when the underinsured motorist hit her. (Statement of Stip. Facts ¶ 17.) Ms. Hudson filed the instant action in response to that denial and seeks a holding from this Court that she is covered under the GEICO policy.
Standard of Review
Generally, in a non-jury trial, the trial justice sits as both trier of fact and law. Parella v. Montalbano, 899 A.2d 1226, 1239 (R.I. 2006). As such, the Court '"weighs and considers the evidence, passes upon the credibility of the witnesses, and draws proper inferences."' Id. (quoting Hood v. Hawkins, 478 A.2d 181, 184 (R.I. 1984)). The justice "need not view the evidence in a light most favorable to a plaintiff." Hood, 478 A.2d at 184-85. Here, however, the Court is deciding the case on a joint statement of undisputed facts. Although Ms. Hudson does not frame her Complaint as a declaratory judgment action, the Court notes that in effect, the parties seek such a holding on one narrow issue of law. "A decision to grant or deny declaratory . . . relief is addressed to the sound discretion of the trial justice and will not be disturbed on appeal unless the record demonstrates a ...