Plaintiff injured trying to stop tool truck theft

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires

DETROIT-The case will continue for a man who was injured while attempting to prevent his employer's tool truck from being stolen.

In Sylvester v. FCCI Insurance Company, plaintiff Kevin Sylvester sued after defendant FCCI Insurance Company insisted that its policy didn't cover his loss.

U.S. District Court Judge David M. Lawson, Eastern District of Michigan, ruled for the plaintiff in the case that focused on the uninsured motorist provisions of the policy issued to the plaintiff's employer by the defendant.

"Sylvester suffered his injuries in an accident while occupying his employer's tool truck, and therefore he was an 'insured person' under the policy. And the truck qualified as an 'uninsured motor vehicle,' based on the policy's precise definition of that term, when FCCI declined Sylvester's bodily injury claim," the Jan. 24 opinion stated.

The case

On Aug. 15, 2017, the plaintiff was on a lunch break at a job site in Detroit when two men attempted to steal a Ford F-450 tool truck with the keys in the ignition. The plaintiff and his co-workers attempted to remove the keys and stop the theft, according to the opinion.

"Sylvester was still hanging onto the side of the truck, trying to get the keys away, when one of the thieves succeeded in starting the engine and shifting the truck into drive. Sylvester was still clinging to the side of the truck, reaching into the cab, when the truck lurched forward and 'took off fast,'" the opinion stated. "As the truck sped up, Sylvester lost his grip on the door and 'slipped off' the running board. He remembered 'falling backwards' and 'getting hit by the truck.'

"The next thing he recalled was waking up in the hospital. When Sylvester fell to the ground, the rear wheels of the truck ran over his legs, causing severe injuries from which he still has not entirely recovered."

Sylvester submitted a claim for uninsured motorist benefits under the FCCI policy. FCCI responded with a letter denying the claim because "(1) the injuries did not result from an 'accident,' but instead from intentional acts by the persons who stole the truck; (2) Sylvester was not 'occupying' the truck when he fell off of it and was injured; and (3) the truck was not an 'uninsured motor vehicle.'"

Sylvester filed a complaint against FCCI in Wayne County Circuit Court. FCCI removed the case to federal court, invoking diversity jurisdiction. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.

Judicial analysis

The opinion points out that the policy does not fully define "accident."

"When a specific definition is not found in the policy, Michigan courts have defined accident to mean 'an undesigned contingency, a casualty, a happening by chance, something out of the usual course of things, unusual, fortuitous, not anticipated, and not naturally to be expected,'" the opinion stated, citing Hawkeye-Security Insurance Co. v. Vector Construction Co. (1990).

"Michigan courts also have explained that an occurrence is accidental unless both the conduct that caused the injury and the injury itself were intended by the actor. As a general rule, 'intentionality is evaluated from the standpoint of the insured, not the injured party,'" according to Allstate Ins. Co. v. McCarn (2002).

"That distinction is somewhat confounded in this case because the injured party and the nominal insured are one and the same - the plaintiff," the judge wrote. "Nevertheless, the record sufficiently suggests that, whether assessed from the point of view of the plaintiff or the unidentified thief, the injuries that the plaintiff suffered when he was run over by the truck were not intended by either of them."

The judge added that there is "no evidence that either of them subjectively predicted or intended that Sylvester would fall beneath the wheels of the truck after he lost his footing."

"The occurrence here was an 'accident' within the meaning of the uninsured motorist endorsement," the opinion stated.

As for the question of "occupying," the opinion stated that, according to the policy definition, the plaintiff was "'occupying' the truck as he was clinging to the side, with both feet on the running board, and one arm holding the driver side door open and propping himself up, while he leaned into the cab with his torso and arms attempting to retrieve the keys."

"For the purpose of the uninsured motorist endorsement, Sylvester's injury resulted from his occupancy of the truck. And he is a named insured under the FCCI policy, including the uninsured motorist endorsement."

The final question considered by the court was whether the truck was an "uninsured motor vehicle."

"Although the tool truck was insured under FCCI's commercial vehicle insurance policy, Sylvester says that it actually qualifies as an 'uninsured motor vehicle' under the endorsement's definition of that term," the opinion stated. "An 'uninsured motor vehicle' under the FCCI policy is 'a land motor vehicle . . . for which an insuring or bonding company denies coverage.'

"Sylvester reasons that the tool truck fits that definition because FCCI denied his claim for bodily injury coverage for the damages caused by the thief when he drove the truck over Sylvester's legs."

FCCI suggested that adopting Sylvester's interpretation of the uninsured motorist definition would lead to the "absurd result that the tool truck would be both insured and uninsured at the same time." But "whether a vehicle is 'uninsured' as the term is colloquially used is irrelevant where the term is defined within the contract," the court stated, citing Collins v. Nat'l Gen. Ins. Co. (2011).

The court applied the policy definitions, "which are unambiguous, and which lead to the conclusion that Sylvester's injuries 'result[ed] from the ownership, maintenance or use of the 'uninsured motor vehicle.'"

The court ruled the plaintiff is entitled to a judgment in his favor as a matter of law on the issue of coverage. The defendant's motion for summary judgment was denied and the plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment was granted.

Published: Mon, Jun 03, 2019