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Penn National Insurance Co. v. Costa

March 25, 2009

PENN NATIONAL INSURANCE COMPANY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
FRANK COSTA, JEANNE COSTA AND CWL CONTRACTING/FRANCO LEASING, DEFENDANTS, AND FARMERS INSURANCE COMPANY OF FLEMINGTON, DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
ERNEST D. ARIANS, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT, AND THE TRAVELERS INDEMNITY COMPANY AS SUCCESSOR IN INTEREST BY MERGER TO GULF INSURANCE COMPANY, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 400 N.J. Super. 147 (2008).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

This appeal presents a conflict in coverage between a homeowners insurance carrier and an automobile insurance carrier.

Frank Costa owned and operated a business that repaired large trucks, and his home was located adjacent to his business. Ernest Arians was employed by Costa as a mechanic. On January 20, 2004, as Arians was leaving Costa's business for his lunch break, he walked past Costa's home and saw Costa changing a flat tire on a pickup truck parked in his home's driveway. Arians walked up the driveway, approached Costa and offered to help replace the tire, but Costa declined the offer. As Arians headed off, he slipped on some ice or snow remaining on the driveway, fell, and struck his head on the bumper jack Costa was using to lift the pickup truck and replace the flat tire. Arians suffered severe injuries as a result of the blow.

Arians sued Costa for his injuries. Penn National Insurance Company (Penn National), Arians's personal automobile insurance carrier, also filed an action in subrogation against Costa, his business and his homeowners insurance carrier, Farmers Insurance Company of Flemington (Farmers). In its suit, Penn National sought to recover what it had paid in personal injury protection benefits to Arians.

Both actions were consolidated. Farmers then answered and filed a third-party complaint, naming Arians and Gulf Insurance Company (Gulf), Costa's automobile insurance carrier, as third-party defendants. Farmers asserted that Arians's injuries arose out of the maintenance of Costa's car and, for that reason Gulf was liable for Arian's injuries. Not surprisingly, Gulf took the opposite view, arguing that Arians's injuries did not arise out of the maintenance being performed on Costa's pickup truck.

Farmers and Gulf filed cross-motions for summary judgment, each claiming that the other was liable for Arians's injuries. The trial court ruled that Arians's injuries were the result of the negligent accumulation of ice and snow on the driveway and thus properly subject to coverage under Costa's homeowners insurance policy and not under Costa's automobile insurance policy. The trial court denied Farmers' motion for summary judgment, and granted Gulf's cross-motion for summary judgment.

Farmers appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed. The Appellate Division concluded that Arians's injuries were "directly connected with the maintenance of the Ford pickup," came within the homeowners policy exclusion, and satisfied the automobile insurance policy's "substantial nexus" test.

The Supreme Court granted Gulf's petition for certification to determine the scope of automobile liability insurance coverage in respect of "loss[es] resulting from. bodily injury, death and property damage.arising out of the.maintenance, operation or use of a motor vehicle[.]" N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1(a).

HELD: In order to determine whether an injury arises out of the maintenance, operation or use of a motor vehicle thereby triggering automobile insurance coverage, there must be a substantial nexus between the injury suffered and the asserted negligent maintenance, operation or use of the motor vehicle. In this case, there is no rational linkage between the negligent failure to clear the driveway of snow and ice and the entirely non-negligent maintenance activity in which Costa was engaged. Therefore, Costa's homeowners insurance policy must respond to Arians's claims.

1. The coverage portions of the homeowners insurance policy and automobile insurance policy at issue are mutually exclusive. Thus, this appeal presents a straightforward question: did Arians's injuries "arise out of" the maintenance of Costa's pickup truck? If the answer to that inquiry is "yes," then Costa's automobile insurance policy as issued by Gulf is obliged to respond; if the answer to that question is "no," then it falls to Farmers, as Costa's homeowners insurance carrier, to assume liability. (Pp. 8-9)

2. Cases decided in the parallel context of injuries that "arise out of" the use of an automobile subscribe to the substantial nexus test. The almost universal utility of the substantial nexus test in the area of insurance coverage questions is evident from the breadth of contexts to which it has been applied. That said, precious few cases have dealt with what the Appellate Division defined as "the more limited criteria of maintenance of a motor vehicle[.]" In the aggregate, the cases demonstrate that, in order to trigger coverage under the liability portion of an automobile insurance policy, the injuries claimed must arise out of the performance of one of the qualifying criteria -- either the "ownership, maintenance, operation or use of a motor vehicle[,]" N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1(a). Synthesized into a more streamlined proposition, the Court explicitly holds that, in order to determine whether an injury arises out of the maintenance, operation or use of a motor vehicle thereby triggering automobile insurance coverage, there must be a substantial nexus between the injury suffered and the asserted negligent maintenance, operation or use of the motor vehicle. (Pp. 9-14)

3. Arians's injuries must bear a substantial, and not an incidental, nexus to the negligent maintenance of Costa's pickup truck. That the negligence that caused Arians's injuries was Costa's failure to keep his driveway clear of snow and ice is beyond dispute; the fact that, in the act of falling, Arians's head struck a jack being used to repair a flat tire is an unfortunate but entirely incidental happenstance to the maintenance activity Costa was performing on his truck. There is no rational linkage between the negligent failure to clear the driveway of snow and ice and the entirely non-negligent maintenance activity in which Costa was engaged. The substantial nexus test compels the serially logical conclusions that Arians's injuries did not arise from the maintenance of Costa's pickup truck; that Gulf's automobile insurance coverage was not triggered; and that the homeowners insurance policy issued by Farmers must respond to Arians's claim. (Pp. 14-17)

The judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED, and the judgment of the Law Division is REINSTATED in all respects.

CHIEF JUSTICE RABNER and JUSTICES LONG, LaVECCHIA, and WALLACE join in JUSTICE RIVERA-SOTO's opinion. JUSTICES ALBIN ...


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