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Koren v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

January 9, 2018

SVETLANA KOREN as parent and Guardian of ERIC KOREN, Petitioner,
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, a foreign entity authorized to perform the business of insurance in Washington, Respondent.

          PENNELL, J.

         Under the personal injury protection (PIP) provisions of State Farm's insurance policy, and Washington's motor vehicle and insurance statutes, a standard capacity school bus does not qualify as an "automobile." This is because an "automobile" is defined as a motor vehicle designed to carry 10 passengers or less[1] and school buses can carry many more than 10 people.

         Despite the limited definition of an "automobile, " we are asked whether a collision between school buses qualifies as an "automobile accident" because the term "automobile accident" has a special meaning, extending to all motor vehicle collisions, regardless of vehicle type. Our answer is no. The meaning of "automobile accident" is informed by the definitions applicable to the term's component words. "Automobile accident" is a two-word phrase wherein the first word modifies the second. As such, a collision can qualify as an "automobile accident" only if it involves a vehicle meeting the definition of an "automobile."

         The superior court properly construed the term "automobile accident" in granting summary judgment to State Farm. The order on appeal is therefore affirmed.

         FACTS

         Svetlana Koren's minor son Eric was injured as a result of a collision involving two school buses. Mrs. Koren filed a claim for PIP benefits on behalf of Eric with her insurer, State Farm.

         The PIP portion of the insurance policy between Mrs. Koren and State Farm provides benefits "for bodily injury sustained by [the] insured and caused by an automobile accident." Clerk's Papers (CP) at 59.[2] Those PIP provisions further define an "automobile, " in pertinent part, as a "motor vehicle registered or designed for carrying ten passengers or less . . . ." Id. at 58. The terms "accident" and "automobile accident" are not defined in the policy.

         State Farm denied Mrs. Koren's coverage claim. According to State Farm, Eric's injuries were not sustained during an "automobile accident" as contemplated by Mrs. Koren's policy. Specifically, because each of the two buses involved were designed to carry more than 10 passengers, neither vehicle met the policy definition of an "automobile."

         Mrs. Koren filed suit against State Farm on behalf of Eric in Spokane County Superior Court, and the parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on issues related to insurance coverage. The superior court sided with State Farm. The court reasoned the focus in this case was not the definition of "automobile accident, " rather it was whether the school buses involved in the accident met the definition of "automobile." It found the policy's definition of "automobile" was not ambiguous and the buses did not qualify as automobiles. The superior court also found the definition of "automobile" under the insurance policy tracked with the language of RCW 48.22.005(1) and RCW 46.04.382; thus, it did not contravene public policy. Since the court found the school bus collision here did not qualify as an insurable event, it did not reach State Farm's other coverage arguments for summary judgment.

         Mrs. Koren sought, and we granted, discretionary review of the superior court's summary judgment order.[3]

         ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment orders are reviewed de novo. Lyons v. U.S. Bank Nat'l Ass 'n, 181 Wn.2d 775, 783, 336 P.3d 1142 (2014). Where the facts in a motor vehicle insurance case are not disputed, "coverage depends solely on the language of the insurance policy, " and the interpretation of such language is a question of law reviewed de novo. Roller v. Stonewall Ins. Co., 115 Wn.2d 679, 682, 801 P.2d 207 (1990), overruled on other grounds by Butzberger v. Foster, 151 Wn.2d 396, 89 P.3d 689 (2004). "In construing the language of an insurance policy, the policy should be given a fair, reasonable, and sensible construction as would be given to the contract by the average person purchasing insurance." Roller, 115 Wn.2d at 682. Courts may not create an ambiguity where the policy language is "clear and unambiguous, " and not fairly susceptible to different reasonable interpretations. Kitsap County v. Allstate Ins. Co., 136 Wn.2d 567, 576, 964 P.2d 1173 (1998).

         Mrs. Koren challenges the superior court's summary judgment order favoring State Farm, arguing the plain terms of her policy do not resolve the question of whether a school bus collision constitutes an "automobile accident." As noted by Mrs. Koren, the State Farm policy defines the term "automobile, " but not "automobile accident." According to Mrs. Koren, "automobile accident" is a term of art that has a special meaning and extends coverage to all motor vehicle collisions. Mrs. Koren relies on Farmers Insurance Company of Washington v. Grelis, 43 Wn.App. 475, 718P.2d812 (1986) and Tyrrell v. Farmers Insurance Company of Washington, 140 Wn.2d 129, 994 P.2d 833 (2000) for this assertion.

         In Grelis, the insured was physically assaulted while sitting in his van. He filed a claim for PIP benefits. Farmers denied coverage, claiming Mr. Grelis had not been involved in an "automobile accident." There was no dispute that, under the plain terms of the PIP policy, Mr. Grelis's van constituted an "automobile" and his injuries were sustained as a result of an "accident." Nevertheless, Farmers argued the term "automobile ...


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