On August 14, 2018, in a case of apparent first impression in New Mexico, the New Mexico intermediate appellate court in Crespin v. Safeco Ins. Co. of Am., 2018 (N.M. Ct. App. 2018) upheld a lower court’s ruling that transporting a minor in an uninsured motor vehicle to another location in order commit a sexual assault does not trigger uninsured motorist (UM) coverage because the assault did not arise out of the use of the uninsured vehicle. The decision rebuffs a novel attempt to broadly interpret UM endorsement language limiting coverage to damages arising out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of an uninsured motor vehicle.
Two men drove their intended victim in an uninsured vehicle to another location in order commit a sexual assault. The victim was not sexually assaulted or harmed while in the uninsured vehicle, and she willingly entered and exited the vehicle such that it could not be said that she was kidnapped by use of the vehicle. The men were subsequently arrested and charged, and after they entered guilty pleas, the victim notified her mother’s automobile liability insurance carrier, Safeco Insurance Company of America (Safeco), of her intention to pursue an uninsured motorist coverage claim. Safeco denied the claim and she commenced a declaratory judgment action. Following the presentation of her case-in-chief at a bench trial, the court granted Safeco’s motion for a directed verdict and dismissed the action, finding that the plaintiff had failed to establish that her injuries arose out of the use of the uninsured vehicle. She appealed.
Applying the three-part analysis set forth by the New Mexico Supreme Court in Britt v. Phoenix Indemnity Insurance Co., 120 N.M. 813, 907 P.2d 994 (N.M. 1995) for determining whether intentional conduct and its resulting harm arises out of the use of an uninsured vehicle, and calling on cases from other jurisdictions, including Minnesota and California, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision, holding that the mere fact that the uninsured vehicle is used to transport an assailant and/or the victim to or from the scene of an intentional tort is not a sufficient causal connection. The Britt test instructs courts to ask the following questions: first, is there a sufficient causal nexus between the use of the uninsured vehicle and the resulting harm, such that the vehicle can be considered to be an active accessory in causing the injury; second, if the first part is satisfied, did an act of independent significance broke the causal link between the use of the vehicle and the resulting harm; and three, was the use to which the vehicle was put a normal use of that vehicle, such as transportation, as opposed to a gun rest? Applying this test, the Crespin Court concluded that while “normal use of the vehicle for transportation purposes” is one of the necessary elements to uninsured motorist coverage, that requirement is separate from, and by itself does not also satisfy, the “active accessory” element. As such, while the uninsured vehicle in Crespin was used to transport the victim to the site of the sexual assault, because the assault did not occur in the vehicle and the victim had voluntarily exited the vehicle, entered the house, and was in the house for more than 20 minutes before the sexual assault occurred, the vehicle itself did not provide the assailants with any physical or proximal advantage in committing the sexual assault.