S.D. SC says electric shock survivor can recover benefits

Jessica M. Karmasek Apr. 27, 2012, 1:35pm


PIERRE, S.D. (Legal Newsline) - The South Dakota Supreme Court ruled this month that coverage is available when the negligent maintenance of an uninsured vehicle results in an accident that causes damages to a claimant.

The Court, in its April 18 opinion, said the Meade County Circuit Court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of defendant National Casualty Company.

National Casualty issued a policy to plaintiff James E. Cornelius' employer, Live Line Maintenance.

Harold Baldwin was the sole proprietor of Live Line, a business that provides construction and maintenance services to rural electric cooperatives in South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming. Cornelius worked as a lineman for Live Line.

On March 11, 2002, Cornelius was performing maintenance work on elevated electrical power lines and systems using a 1963 International bucket truck.

Mounted on the truck was a boom with an open bucket that Cornelius used to lift himself to the top of the elevated power lines.

As Cornelius was standing in the bucket of the truck performing his duties, he came in contact with one of the live lines. The electric current passed through his body to the bucket, and then to the ground through the boom of the truck.

He sustained serious injuries as a result.

The bucket truck that Cornelius used was insured by National Casualty. The policy provided separate coverage for liability and uninsured motorist insurance.

The liability coverage, in particular, contained an exclusion for bodily injury sustained by an employee.

National Casualty relied on this exclusion to deny liability coverage to Live Line for the injuries Cornelius sustained.

In March 2008, Cornelius filed a complaint against National Casualty.

He asserted that the injuries he sustained were the result of Live Line and Baldwin's negligent maintenance of the bucket truck. Specifically, he alleged that Live Line and Baldwin failed to properly insulate the bucket and boom from the electrical charge.

Cornelius then sought a declaratory judgment that he was entitled to recover uninsured motorist benefits under the insurance policy issued by National Casualty

In response, National Casualty moved for summary judgment.

The circuit court granted the motion, finding that Cornelius could not recover such benefits.

The court reasoned that uninsured motorist coverage only extends to accidents arising out of the "normal use" of a vehicle, which consists of "transportation to and from destinations."

Cornelius appealed.

The state's high court reversed.

"National Casualty argues that, under Abraham, Cornelius cannot recover uninsured motorist benefits for an accident that did not involve an uninsured third-party. We disagree," Justice Glen A. Severson wrote for the Court.

"In this case, under the insurance policy National Casualty drafted, an 'uninsured motor vehicle' is defined as a 'land motor vehicle... for which any insuring or bonding company denies coverage.'"

The lower court had determined that the bucket truck Cornelius was using at the time he was injured was an "uninsured motor vehicle." National Casualty, the Court noted, did not challenge the court's finding on the issue.

"The insurance policy does not contain an exclusion for single-vehicle accidents. We therefore find no basis for National Casualty's assertion that Cornelius is precluded from recovering uninsured motorist benefits because the accident did not involve an uninsured third-party," Severson wrote.

The Court also shot down the insurer's argument that Cornelius' loss is not compensable because the alleged negligent maintenance that resulted in his injuries was not performed "in support of the transportation purpose" of the bucket truck.

"The bucket truck upon which Cornelius was injured was described in the insurance policy as a covered 'auto.' The boom that was mounted on the bucket truck was a device similar to a cherry picker that was 'used to raise and lower workers.' Such a device was expressly covered under the insurance policy," Severson explained.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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