ANALYSIS OF DECEMBER 19, 2019 SUPREME COURT OPINION
(Posted December 19, 2019) The Supreme Court of Virginia hands down one published opinion today, in an insurance-coverage appeal. The case is Corriveau v. State Farm Mut. Automobile Ins. Co.
This is a declaratory-judgment action in which a policy beneficiary sought a declaration of coverage on an uninsured motorist policy. The case arose from an assault on a school bus designed to transport special-needs children. The bus was equipped with harnesses to restrain the children and protect them during transport.
The victim here is a ten-year-old autistic boy who didn’t speak. The suit alleged that the bus driver and a bus aide buckled two children, including the claimant here, into harnesses and then began to beat and choke one of them. In the process, the two assailants struck the claimant more than once, injuring him.
The claimant, suing through his mother, sought a declaration that his family’s UM policy covered his injuries. (The suit implicated the UM policy presumably because the local school division, which owned the bus, is immune.) The insurer defended on the grounds that the policy only covered losses arising out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of the uninsured vehicle, and there was no nexus between the assault and the use of the bus for transportation purposes.
On cross motions for summary judgment, the circuit court agreed with the insurer and dismissed the case. A panel of the Supreme Court agreed earlier this year to review that judgment.
Today, in a short, unanimous opinion, the justices affirm. While the court technically reviews the case as a mixed question of law and fact, there were no disputed facts here for summary-judgment purposes, so this was in essence a demurrer ruling. That means that the justices reviewed the only appealed issue de novo.
The court first turns to caselaw requiring “a causal connection between the accident and the use of the vehicle as a vehicle.” It further notes that if one uses the vehicle “in a manner foreign to its designed purpose,” then the policy doesn’t apply. (This telegraphs that the court is going to affirm.) One cited case described the use of a car door as a shield during a gun battle.
Today’s opinion acknowledges that the bus was the situs of the assault, but holds that assault is “a use wholly separate from the intended use as a means of transportation.” The court concludes that the parties to the insurance contract never intended to include an in-vehicle assault to be within the scope of coverage.
Responding to this contention, the claimant pointed to a 1990 SCV decision involving the discharge of a rifle as the owner removed it from a vehicle, causing injury to another person. There, the court had held that a sufficient nexus existed between the use and the injury, “in part because the driver had left his vehicle door open while placing an object in the back of the vehicle, and thus ‘had not completed his use of the Jeep when the rifle discharged.’” The claimant also urged that the harnesses in the bus restrained the victims, making them helpless, another factor that should count for something. All of that seems to counsel in favor of a finding of coverage.
Ah, but 1990 was another time and another Supreme Court of Virginia. This one is far more conservative and, as its body of decisions shows, far more likely to rule in favor of insurers. Faced with this inconvenient 1990 precedent, the court today simply overrules it, citing a distinction that the 1990 court had not embraced. That results in not one but two victories today for the insurance industry: They win this appeal, and they get a troublesome precedent erased.
But what about stare decisis? Isn’t our body of caselaw supposed to provide stability and predictability? Today’s opinion acknowledges this concept, as it must; but in my view, it then gives this doctrine the back of its hand, answering this problem in half a paragraph stating only that stare decisis isn’t immutable. In short, I perceive that the court reverses the 1990 decision because it wants to.
Stare decisis – more specifically, the failure to adhere to it – has been in the news across the Potomac this year. A change in SCOTUS personnel has led the high Court to “revise” prior holdings with a comparably thin acknowledgement of the value of adhering to precedent. This has led dissenters to muse openly, in published opinions – see Justice Breyer’s dissent in Franchise Tax Board v. Hyatt, decided in late May, for an example – what other precedent a newly constituted majority will choose to reverse next. That, of course, is a thinly veiled reference to Roe v. Wade, a doctrine that may be in danger with the appointments of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.
We don’t have a Roe v. Wade at stake here in Virginia. But as I’ve described before, the current Supreme Court of Virginia has embarked on a steady rightward march in its jurisprudence, and this decision is the latest milestone in that trek. Virginia is a terrific place to run a business, and to operate an insurance company. It is a terrible place to get injured, at least in terms of the victim’s ability to obtain redress in the courts. That won’t change in the near future, regardless of who controls the legislature across Ninth Street.