Stoplight Shooting Not Covered by Uninsured Motorist Policy, Carolina High Court Says
A fatal shooting by a disturbed driver is not covered by the victim’s uninsured motorist policy, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided this week in an opinion that shows how court rulings on the issue have evolved over the last 30 years.
“We hold gunshot injuries do not arise out of the use of an automobile,” the high court wrote in Progressive Direct Insurance vs. Shanna Groves, a Representative of the Estate of Lynn Harrison. “We reverse the court of appeals’ decision and reinstate the circuit court’s order granting Progressive’s motion for summary judgment.”
Justice Kay Hearn wrote in the Sept. 21 opinion that the question of whether coverage exists in a shooting involving a vehicle “has evolved in our jurisprudence.”
“Although in early cases this Court seemed to favor coverage when injuries were caused by an armed motorist, it later retreated from this position,” she explained.
The court of appeals, which had overturned the trial court’s ruling that went in favor of Progressive, leaned on 1992 and 1994 state Supreme Court opinions. But the high court’s 1998 decision in State Farm Fire vs. Aytes changed the legal landscape, finding that a shooting did not have a causal connection to the use of the vehicle by the shooter, the justices said.
Supporting that view is the fact that no appellate court has allowed coverage for gunshot injuries since 1994, the court noted.
The justices said that for insureds to recover under an uninsured motorist policy, statutes and case law require the circumstances to pass a three-prong test: The plaintiff must establish a causal connection between the injury and the use of the uninsured vehicle; there is no act of “independent significance” that breaks the chain of causation; and the uninsured vehicle must have been used for transportation at the time.
The court found that Redman’s use of the rifle was an act of independent significance and that the insurance contract never intended that gunshot injuries were to be covered by an auto policy. Vehicles are not normally necessary for shooting people, the court said, quoting from a 2001 court ruling.
“Groves cannot establish that Harrison’s injuries arose out of the use of Redman’s motor vehicle—a position consistent with courts across the country,” the court wrote.
Four justices concurred and none dissented.
The 2015 shooting incident in Summerville, South Carolina, was shocking for its randomness and senselessness, and highlighted the confluence of gun prevalence and mental conditions. The shooter was 36-year-old Jimi Redman, of Texas, an Iraq War veteran who had sustained a brain injury and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
News reports and the court’s decision said the uninsured Redman pulled up next to motorist Lynn Harrison at a stoplight. She was on her way to meet her daughter for lunch. After blowing kisses to her and making hand gestures, a witness said Redman took out a rifle and shot Harrison through the passenger window. She died at the scene.
Redman was arrested a few blocks away and in 2018 was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Tragically, Harrison’s husband was murdered in an unrelated shooting in 2016, leaving the daughter, Shanna Groves, to pursue the uninsured motorist claim and litigation. The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case almost a year ago, in November 2021.
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