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 31A-22-303(1).

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

-If so, 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 present.

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.

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