Key Decisions

November 2013 – Liability For Negligent Supervision Resulting In An Auto Accident Was Subject To The Auto Exclusion

(filed under: Key Decisions | November 20, 2013)

Liability For Negligent Supervision Resulting In An Auto Accident Was Subject To The Auto Exclusion

Farmers Insurance Exchange v. Superior Court
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed October 1, 2013, published October 28, 2013

KEY FACTS

Jose and Sara Bautista had a two-year-old granddaughter named Valerie. Sara was responsible for watching and caring for Valerie. Sara routinely allowed the grandchildren to greet Jose when he drove home from work. On August 17, 2007, Sara negligently failed to supervise Valerie and as a result, Valerie exited the house to greet Jose and was hit and killed by Jose’s vehicle as he entered the driveway.

At the time, the Bautistas had a homeowners’ policy with policy limits of $300,000 per occurrence and an automobile policy with limits of $30,000 per person, to a maximum of $60,000 per occurrence.

The homeowners’ policy excluded bodily injury that “results from the ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of…motor vehicles…” It also excluded bodily injury to residents of the Bautistas household.

Valerie’s parents sued the Bautistas and obtained a $300,000 judgment.Farmers’ declaratory relief complaint sought an adjudication that the homeowners’ policy did not apply. Valerie’s parents cross-complained for bad faith.

The trial court denied Farmers’ summary judgment motion, ruling that the homeowners’ policy exlcusion did not apply.

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate directing the trial court to grant Farmers’ motion. It concluded that the “motor vehicle” exclusion barred coverage.

The court analyzed State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Partridge, 10 Cal.3d 94 (1973) to determine whether Sara’s liability was dependent or independent of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle.

In Partridge, the insured and several friends were hunting rabbits from his vehicle. The gun had been modified to have a “hair trigger.” During the expedition, the insured pulled off the road. This jarred the pistol, causing it to fire. The bullet hit and seriously injured the claimant, one of his passengers.

The insurer argued the claim was covered under the insured’s automobile policy, but not his homeowner’s policy. It reasoned the ultimate injuries arose out of the vehicle’s use which the homeowner’s policy specifically excluded.

The California Supreme Court held that both the automobile and homeowner’s policies afforded coverage. It held there were two independent negligent acts. One act of negligence was driving off the road; the other was modifying the trigger. The court held the insured’s liability for the negligent act of modifying the trigger was not a liability arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle even though the gun would not have discharged had the insured not driven off the roadway.

Cases decided after the Partridge case considered whether acts of negligence were dependent or independent.

Ultimately, the court concluded that Sara’s liability depended on the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle.

This is an interesting decision that further refines the “independent negligence” concept. The court concentrated on the fact that the vehicle – the excluded instrument – played an active role in producing the injury, so the exclusion barred coverage.