DEER STAND ACCIDENT RESULTS IN COVERAGE UNDER UIM POLICY; COURT FINDS CLAIM AGAINST HOMEOWNERS CARRIER “NOT RIPE”

February 20, 2012

The Dallas Court of Appeals last Thursday addressed an injured person’s claims in a negligence case against his neighbor, against his own auto carrier for coverage under the uninsured/underinsured motorist provision, and for a declaration of coverage under his neighbor’s homeowners policy.  The court held that the auto policy covered the Plaintiff’s claims, but that the suit against the homeowners carrier was premature.  In Farmers Ins. Exch. v. Rodriguez, No. 14-10-00995-CV, — WL — (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Feb. 16, 2012), the Plaintiff brought suit based on an accident that occurred when he was helping his neighbor unload a deer stand from the neighbor’s trailer on the neighbor’s property.  The undisputed facts established that the Plaintiff and his neighbor were trying to manually lift the deer stand off of the neighbor’s trailer, and when the neighbor realized the 350-pound stand was too heavy, he jumped out of the way leaving the Plaintiff to hold the stand on his own.  The stand fell, seriously injuring the Plaintiff.

At the summary judgment stage, Farmers, the homeowners insurer, argued that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the Plaintiff’s claims against Farmers because the claims were not yet ripe.  The trial court denied Farmers’ motion, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that because coverage was uncertain without a judgment against the Plaintiff’s neighbor.  The mere fact that the circumstances of the Plaintiff’s injuries were undisputed, the Court of Appeals said, did not change the fact that the jury was required to decide and apportion liability before coverage under the homeowners policy could be determined.

The Court of Appeals affirmed, however, the judgment against Allstate, the Plaintiff’s auto carrier.  The Court held that loading and unloading a trailer was “use” of the trailer even if loading and unloading was not  specifically  mentioned  in  the  policy.   Applying  a  three-factor  test  to  determine  use,  the  Court concluded that (1) it was in the inherent nature of a trailer to haul materials, and that these functions include loading and unloading; (2) the accident was in the natural territorial limits of the trailer, because even though Plaintiff was not in the trailer, loading and unloading includes “moving … goods to their final physical destination”; and (3) the trailer was a cause of the accident in that the accident could not have occurred if the Plaintiff were not helping his neighbor unload the deer stand from the trailer.