SALT LAKE CITY (Legal Newsline) – The Utah Supreme Court has decided Utah law overrules the common-law defense of sudden incapacity in a limited extent, doing so in a lawsuit regarding a bus driver who became unconscious transporting a high school band.
The case, Lancer Insurance Co. v. Lake Shore Motor
Coach Lines Inc., Janna Crane, Elizabeth Hutchison, Mette Seppi and Tiffany
Thayne involves a bus accident that occurred on Oct. 10, 2009.
The bus driver, Debra Jarvis, fell unconscious while returning
to Utah from a high school band competition in Idaho. The bus, owned by Lake
Shore Motor Coach Lines Inc., left the roadway, hit a ravine and rolled over
after Jarvis fell unconscious. Several passengers were injured.
Crane, Hutchison, Seppi and Thayne filed separate lawsuits
seeking damages for their injuries. Crane and Hutchison also filed motions for
partial summary judgment, claiming that Lancer Insurance Co., Lake Shore’s
insurer, was liable for any passengers’ injuries under Utah Code section
The motions were denied, with the court stating that the statute
preserved the common-law “sudden incapacity” defense. With this defense, Jarvis
would not be liable for her loss of consciousness and the injured parties could
sue only if they showed fault on her part.
Utah Code section 31A-22-303(1) states two premises, “a
requirement of insurance coverage for 'damages or injury resulting from a
covered driver of a motor vehicle who is stricken by an unforeseeable
paralysis, seizure, or other unconscious condition and a limitation of liability
confining the driver’s liability' to the “insurance coverage."
Utah Code section 31A-22-303(1) also states, “The
amount of the arbitration award may not exceed the liability limits of all the
defendant's applicable liability insurance policies, including applicable
liability umbrella policies. If the initial arbitration award exceeds the
liability limits of all applicable liability insurance policies, the
arbitration award shall be reduced to an amount equal to the liability limits
of all applicable liability insurance policies. The arbitration award is the
final resolution of all claims between the parties unless the award was
procured by corruption, fraud, or other undue means. If the arbitration panel
finds that the action was not brought, pursued, or defended in good faith, the
arbitration panel may award reasonable fees and costs against the party that
failed to bring, pursue, or defend the claim in good faith.”
After Lancer Insurance succeeded in this respect, it
filed a separate federal case defending against the motions for summary
judgement in state court. In this case, Lancer wanted a declaratory judgment
confirming the court’s interpretation of Utah Code section 31A-22-303(1).
The Utah Supreme Court called the strategy "unusual." Ultimately, the Utah federal court asked the state Supreme Court for guidance on two questions.
-Whether Utah Code
section 31A-22-303(1) imposes strict liability on an insured driver
for damages to third parties resulting from the driver’s
unforeseeable loss of consciousness while driving; and
whether the driver’s liability is limited by the applicable insurance
policy or by the applicable minimum statutory limit.
The legislature enacted a requirement that all motor
vehicle liability insurance policies cover damages or injuries resulting from a
covered driver of a motor vehicle who is in an unconscious condition.
This decision means that the Utah Code section
31A-22-303(1) overrules the common-law doctrine of sudden incapacity to only a
limited extent, specifically, in a case where mandated coverage is
The court concluded that an injured party has a claim for strict
liability under the terms of the statute. Also, the driver’s liability is
limited to the insurance coverage.