On January 14, 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court rendered an important decision on when an injury “arises out of” the use of a vehicle for the purpose of uninsured motorist (“UIM”) coverage.
In Kroeber v. GEICO Insurance Co., a woman was shot outside a bar by the driver of an uninsured vehicle, and sought UIM coverage from her automobile insurer. The woman’s insurer, GEICO, provided coverage for damages that the insured was legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle due to bodily injury sustained and caused by an accident, provided that the liability of the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle arises out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the uninsured motor vehicle. GEICO denied the claim because the woman’s injuries did not arise out of the use of the uninsured motorist’s truck, and she sued for coverage.
Prior Washington courts had found that the phrase “arising out of” in a UIM policy does not mean proximate cause, but indicates a lesser standard of causation having some relationship to or connection with the use, maintenance or ownership of the uninsured vehicle. The Kroeber court concluded that existing case law did not establish that the vehicle or an attachment to it need be the direct cause of the injury, but that the injury must have a causal relationship to the condition of the vehicle, a permanent attachment thereto, or some aspect of its operation. Thus, the court found, the phrase “arising out of” should be broadly construed to mean a mere causal connection between the injury and the use of the vehicle. The court distinguished situations where the vehicle serves as the “mere situs” of the accident, and noted that the distinction and determination for when the use of a vehicle causes the injury versus when it is the mere situs of the injury is a factual determination to be made by the trial court.
Kroeber is significant because it opens the potential for UIM coverage for injuries that are not directly caused by the vehicle, but are the independent actions of the operator of the vehicle at the time of the incident.