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Hudson v. GEICO Insurance Agency, Inc.

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 16, 2017

Amberleigh Hudson
GEICO Insurance Agency, Inc., d/b/a GEICO General Insurance Company.

         Providence County Superior Court (PC 12-6179) Associate Justice Netti C. Vogel

          For Plaintiff: Joseph J. Altieri, Esq.

          For Defendant: Mark P. Dolan, Esq. Mark P. Dolan, Jr., Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


          Maureen McKenna Goldberg Associate Justice

         The plaintiff, Amberleigh Hudson (plaintiff), is before the Supreme Court on appeal from a Superior Court judgment in a jury-waived trial in favor of the defendant, GEICO Insurance Agency, Inc., d/b/a GEICO General Insurance Company (defendant or GEICO), in this underinsured motorist (UM) insurance case. This appeal first came before the Court on October 25, 2016, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After hearing the arguments of counsel and examining the memoranda filed by the parties, we concluded that cause had been shown and assigned this case to the regular calendar for further briefing and argument. We heard oral arguments on April 5, 2017. For the reasons set forth herein, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

         Facts and Travel

         The parties in this case entered into an agreed statement of facts. In the early morning hours of February 11, 2012, plaintiff and her then-boyfriend, Gregory Hurst (Hurst), left Murphy's Pub in Providence and headed south on Allens Avenue toward the Amazing Super Store, located on the corner of Allens Avenue and Thurbers Avenue. Hurst was driving his Saab, which was insured by defendant (the GEICO policy), and plaintiff was a passenger. Hurst pulled into the parking lot and parked the vehicle "with a plan to then exit the vehicle and go into the Amazing Super Store." Hurst and plaintiff remained in the vehicle "for a minute or two to talk, " when they heard the sound of a crash, signifying an automobile collision, on nearby Allens Avenue. The couple exited the Saab, crossed the parking lot of the Amazing Super Store, and the two southbound lanes of Allens Avenue in order to reach the nearby accident scene. While Hurst called 9-1-1, plaintiff went to the rear of the vehicles to retrieve the license plate numbers. While looking down at a license plate, plaintiff heard somebody yell "car." A third vehicle, traveling north on Allens Avenue, then struck the accident vehicles, adjacent to where plaintiff was standing. She was injured as a result of this impact.

         The plaintiff settled a claim against the operator of the vehicle that hit her; however, she has alleged that this did not fully compensate her for her injuries. Consequently, plaintiff filed a claim with defendant seeking relief through Hurst's GEICO policy that insured the Saab. The GEICO policy afforded protection to passengers "occupying" the insured vehicle at the time of the accident. The policy defined "occupying" as "in, upon entering into or alighting from [the vehicle]." The defendant denied plaintiff's claim, on the ground that she was not "occupying" the insured vehicle at the time of her injuries. The plaintiff filed this action in Superior Court on November 30, 2012, and the case was reached for trial on June 17, 2015.

         Prior to trial, and based on the agreed statement of facts, the parties filed cross-motions for judgment as a matter of law, stipulating that there were no genuine issues of material fact and that the sole issue before the Superior Court was whether plaintiff was "occupying" the Saab at the time of the accident. In its motion, defendant maintained that plaintiff was precluded from recovery based upon the unambiguous language of the GEICO policy. The plaintiff responded that she was entitled to coverage in light of the broad interpretation of "occupying" set forth by this Court in General Accident Insurance Co. of America v. Olivier, 574 A.2d 1240 (R.I. 1990).[1]In a written decision issued on August 4, 2015, the trial justice rejected defendant's argument that the plain language of the GEICO policy should be the focus of the coverage analysis and, instead, analyzed the term "occupying" in light of the four prongs of Olivier.

         The trial justice concluded that plaintiff failed to establish a causal connection between the insured Saab and her injuries and, therefore, could not move past the first prong of Olivier. Although declaring that the failure to meet the first prong of Olivier rendered the remainder of the analysis moot, the trial justice noted that plaintiff also failed to satisfy the third requirement that she was "vehicle oriented" at the time of the injury. Accordingly, the trial justice held that plaintiff could not recover UM benefits under the terms of the GEICO policy because she was not "occupying" the insured vehicle at the time of the incident giving rise to her injuries. A final judgment was entered in favor of defendant on October 9, 2015, from which plaintiff has appealed to this Court.[2]

         Standard of Review

         "This case was tried upon a set of stipulated facts. Review of the trial justice's decision in these cases is 'narrowly defined.'" Delbonis Sand & Gravel Co. v. Town of Richmond, 909 A.2d 922, 925 (R.I. 2006) (quoting Hagenberg v. Avedisian, 879 A.2d 436, 441 (R.I. 2005)). "[T]he trial court does not play a fact-finding role, but is limited to 'applying the law to the agreed-upon facts.'" Id. (quoting Hagenberg, 879 A.2d at 441). "[Q]uestions of law and statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo by this Court." Hagenberg, 879 A.2d at 441 (quoting Webster v. Perrotta, 774 A.2d 68, 75 (R.I. 2001)). Likewise, "[o]ur review of a trial justice's decision on a motion for judgment as a matter of law is de novo." McGarry v. Pielech, 47 A.3d 271, 279 (R.I. 2012) (quoting Medeiros v. Sitrin, 984 A.2d 620, 625 (R.I. 2009)).


         Before this Court, plaintiff argues that the trial justice erroneously interpreted the Olivier factors as applied to the facts of this case, and she maintains that, at the time of her injuries, she was "occupying" the insured vehicle. The plaintiff agrees with the trial justice's finding on the second prong of Olivier-that she was in a reasonably close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle at the time of her injuries-but she claims on appeal that the trial justice erroneously interpreted the first prong by applying too strict a standard in considering the existence of a causal connection between the insured vehicle and the accident. As to Olivier's third prong, plaintiff urges the Court to abandon the third prong-which mandates that the injured person be "vehicle oriented" at the time of their injury-suggesting that it is "ambiguous, confusing, and indeed, useless." In regard to the fourth prong, plaintiff submits that this Court should hold that, in light of the mandate in G.L. 1956 § 11-56-1, the rendering of reasonable assistance as a Good Samaritan, constitutes an "essential transaction" for purposes of UM coverage. Section 11-56-1 provides, in pertinent part:

"Any person at the scene of an emergency who knows that another person is exposed to, or has suffered, grave physical harm shall, to the extent that he or she can do so without danger or peril to himself or herself or to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person. Any person violating the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a petty misdemeanor * * *."

         The defendant on the other hand contends that plaintiff waived her § 11-56-1 argument by not raising it at trial and that the issue is moot because whether plaintiff was acting under compulsion of the statute when she rendered aid at the scene of the accident is a factual determination which should be reserved for the trial justice. Alternatively, defendant claims that a Good Samaritan can only be "occupying" an insured vehicle if each of the four prongs of Olivier is satisfied and that the trial justice properly found those elements to be lacking in this case.

         This is the first occasion on which this Court is called upon to address the particular interplay between § 11-56-1, the Good Samaritan Act, and the term "occupying" a motor vehicle, as defined in an insurance contract. As a threshold issue, we pass on defendant's contention that this seminal argument is waived or otherwise moot. We reject that argument.

         "This Court's 'raise-or-waive' rule precludes our consideration of an issue that was not raised or articulated at trial." In re Miguel A., 990 A.2d 1216, 1223 (R.I. 2010) (citing Resendes v. Brown, 966 A.2d 1249, 1254 (R.I. 2009)); see also Hydro-Manufacturing, Inc. v. Kayser-Roth Corp., 640 A.2d 950, 959 (R.I. 1994) ("It is well settled that a party may not 'advance new theories or raise new issues in order to secure a reversal of the lower court's determination.'" (quoting Nedder v. Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank, 459 A.2d 960, 963 (R.I. 1983))). We cannot agree with defendant's contention that the raise-or-waive rule precludes this Court from considering plaintiff's argument that she acted as a Good Samaritan pursuant to § 11-56-1. Certainly, plaintiff advanced her Good Samaritan theory to the lower court, as the decision of the trial justice is replete with references to plaintiff's rescue efforts as having been those of a Good Samaritan. Indeed, the trial justice recognized that this Court "has yet to address whether rendering aid as a Good Samaritan" satisfies the requirements of Olivier.

         We also reject as meritless defendant's contention that plaintiff's argument is moot and that our resolution thereof would be equivalent to an advisory opinion. "[A] case is moot if it raised a justiciable controversy at the time the complaint was filed, but events occurring after the filing have deprived the litigant of an ongoing stake in the controversy." City of Cranston v. Rhode Island Laborers' District Council, Local 1033, 960 A.2d 529, 533 (R.I. 2008) (quoting Seibert v. Clark, 619 A.2d 1108, 1110 (R.I. 1993)). This case is not moot, as both plaintiff and defendant have a continuing stake in whether UM benefits should be afforded to plaintiff under the terms of the GEICO policy.

         Therefore, because the issues before the Court are neither waived nor otherwise moot, we turn to the fundamental question before this Court: Whether, in light of § 11-56-1, a Good Samaritan who was injured while rendering roadside aid may be considered to be "occupying" an insured motor vehicle for purposes of UM coverage under that vehicle's insurance policy. We look first to the term "occupying" as defined in the GEICO policy.

         The GEICO Policy

         In the recent case of Jackson v. Quincy Mutual Fire Insurance Co., No. 2016-19-Appeal, 2017 WL 1843873 (R.I. May 5, 2017), this Court articulated the proper interpretation to be afforded to defined terms of an insurance policy. The approach that controls the interpretation can be classified as either inclusive or exclusive, based on whether the policy clause at issue includes a person other than the named insured within the coverage afforded or seeks to exclude the named insured from the coverage. Specifically, we recognized the "general principle favoring broad coverage" as the cornerstone for the analysis. That principle reads as follows:

"[W]here the policy provision under examination relates to the inclusion of persons other than the named insured within the protection afforded, a broad and liberal view is taken of the coverage extended. But, if the clause in question is one of exclusion or exception, designed to limit the protection, a strict interpretation is applied." Id. at *3 (quoting Peerless Insurance Co. v. Luppe, 118 A.3d 500, 510 (R.I. 2015)).

         This declaration serves to harmonize this Court's general rule that "when examining an insurance policy, * * * '[the court] shall not depart from the literal language of the policy absent a finding that the policy is ambiguous, '" Allstate Insurance Co. v. Ahlquist, 59 A.3d 95, 98 (R.I. 2013) (quoting Beacon Mutual Insurance Co. v. Spino Brothers, Inc., 11 A.3d 645, 649 (R.I. 2011)), with the salutary purpose underlying UM provisions, which is "to indemnify an insured motorist for loss when recovery from the uninsured tortfeasor is unavailable." Ladouceur v. Hanover Insurance Co., 682 A.2d 467, 469 (R.I. 1996) (citing Amica Mutual Insurance Co. v. Streicker, 583 A.2d 550, 553 (R.I. 1990)). In this context, the coverage extended under an insurance policy rests, in large part, on the radius of the lens through which we view the policy's terms. See Jackson, 2017 WL 1843873 at *3 ("[T]he guidepost in determining whether to apply a broad and liberal view of the terms in an insurance policy or whether a strict interpretation of the language is more appropriate is whether the language relates to inclusion of persons within the policy or exclusion of the insured from protection."). Accordingly, when the terms of an insurance policy operate to exclude the insured from the protections of his policy, we look no further than the plain language of the policy. Id. But if the terms of an insurance policy arguably serve to include an individual other than the named insured within the coverage afforded, we employ a broad and liberal view of the policy language. Id.

         Before this Court, plaintiff, a passenger and person other than the named insured, seeks to be included within the protection afforded under Hurst's GEICO policy. Accordingly, this Court is obligated to read the terms of the GEICO policy broadly to determine whether, at the time of her injuries, plaintiff was "occupying" the insured Saab. In applying a liberal interpretation to the term "occupying"-defined in the GEICO policy as "in, upon entering into or alighting from"-we are guided by the factors set forth in Olivier, 574 A.2d at 1241.


         Although the facts in this case deviate from those in Olivier and its progeny, see Olivier, supra; see also D'Antuono v. Narragansett Bay Insurance Co., 721 A.2d 834 (R.I. 1998); General Accident Insurance Co. of America v. D'Alessandro, 671 A.2d 1233 (R.I. 1996), in that plaintiff was acting as a Good Samaritan and not a conventional passenger, Olivier remains the governing standard for according a broad interpretation to the terms of an insurance policy. Additionally, we recognize that some jurisdictions require that each of the four factors adopted in Olivier be fulfilled in their entirety in order to satisfy the occupancy requirement. See Petika v. Transcontinental Insurance Co., 855 A.2d 85, 90 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2004) (declining to find occupancy where the plaintiff failed to satisfy the "vehicle oriented" prong). However, this Court has recognized that the Olivier factors serve only as a guide to employing a broad interpretation of the term "occupying." See D'Alessandro, 671 A.2d at 1235 ("In Olivier * * * we set forth four factors to be considered in assessing whether an insured is 'occupying' a vehicle when an accident occurs * * *." (emphasis added)). In our opinion, such a strict adherence is in stark contrast to the general purpose underpinning the four factors-to extend coverage broadly. Therefore, we are of the opinion that a plaintiff may fail to satisfy a portion of the Olivier criteria, but may nonetheless be "occupying" an insured vehicle for purposes of UM coverage. This determination is intensely fact-driven.

         The first prong of Olivier necessitates that there be "a causal relation or connection between the injury and the use of the insured vehicle." Olivier, 574 A.2d at 1241 (quoting Utica Mutual Insurance Co., 473 A.2d at 1009). In Olivier, we interpreted this prong to require some "nexus" between the insured motor vehicle and the claimant's injuries. Id. at 1242 (recognizing the Florida Supreme Court's construction of the phrase as "not meaning 'proximately caused by' but as having a broader meaning that simply required some nexus between the motor vehicle and the injury" (citing Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Novak, 453 So.2d 1116, 1119 (Fla. 1984))). Additionally, we recognized that, in liberally construing that prong, "it [is] unnecessary that the automobile be the instrumentality of the injury; neither would the type of conduct that causes the injury of necessity be foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of the vehicle." Id.

         Applying this construction to the undisputed facts of this case demonstrates a sufficient nexus between the insured motor vehicle and plaintiff's injuries, in that plaintiff was inside the insured vehicle when she heard the collision and exited the vehicle in order to offer assistance at the nearby scene. Even under a narrow construction of the policy language, she was "occupying" the vehicle when she became aware of the collision and was compelled to render assistance to the victims of the accident-an action that precipitated her unfortunate and significant injuries. See Olivier, 574 A.2d at 1242 ("It was her status as a passenger in the insured vehicle that precipitated the whole unfortunate series of events."). In our opinion, these facts establish a nexus between the insured motor vehicle and plaintiff's injuries sufficient to successfully meet the first prong of Olivier. We are not confronted with a scenario in which plaintiff had already departed the vehicle ...

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