Trying to climb through the window of a car in order to stop an ongoing carjacking is probably not the safest or wisest idea, but a federal court has at least said that South Carolina’s uninsured motorist laws will allow a driver injured by a car thief to pursue a claim against her insurer.
Beverly Morris alleges that an unknown man stole her car. In an attempt to stop the theft, she climbed partway through the passenger side window, but the thief pulled away undeterred, with Morris dangling from the window and dragging on the road. The laws of physics being what they are, Morris eventually separated from the car, and the John Doe sped away, never to be caught.
Morris brought a claim against her insurer, Electric Insurance Company, for the injuries she suffered while trying to stop a crime in progress. Electric moved to dismiss Morris’s complaint, arguing that South Carolina’s John Doe statute required her to produce a witness affidavit because no other car was involved in the incident.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy M. Cain rejected the argument that Morris had to satisfy the John Doe statute before she could recover for her injuries. Although the courts of South Carolina had never addressed the issue, Cain said, a ruling for Morris would be consistent with the state Supreme Court’s comments in other cases and bring the state in agreement with rulings from other states.
South Carolina courts usually require strict compliance with the John Doe statute, which is designed to prevent fraudulent insurance claims. Cain cited the case of a woman who was denied UIM coverage when she passed out in the passenger seat of her car and some unknown person drove her car before crashing it.
But in that same case, the state Court of Appeals quoted a state Supreme Court case finding that the legislature didn’t intend for car owners to lose coverage when an unauthorized driver takes the wheel. The court specifically used the example of a carjacking, and said that relieving the insurer of liability in such a case would “lead to a result so plainly absurd that it could not have been intended by the legislature or would defeat the plain legislative intention.”
Other states with similar laws have reached the same conclusions. In Colorado, an owner was allowed to recover for injuries from jumping on the hood of her car to stop a thief. In Montana, an owner was allowed to recover for injuries from jumping into the bed of a truck to stop theft, and in Illinois, a man struck by own car while trying to stop a theft was allowed to recover from his insurer.
Cain said the primary difference between cases where the John Doe statute has been used to deny coverage and Morris’ case was in the culpability of the cars’ owners and of the John Does. In the case of the woman who claimed to have passed out after a night of bar-hopping, policy concerns tipped the scale in favor of requiring strict compliance with the John Doe statute in order to eliminate some of the risk of a fraudulent claim.
“However, in the carjacking scenario … the balance tips in favor of protecting an innocent insured against a culpable John Doe; the remedial nature of the uninsured motorist statutes outweighs the John Doe Statute’s fraud protection,” Cain held.
The plain language of the insurance policy Morris signed implied that it covered injuries like the ones she suffered, Cain found, and rather than contravening South Carolina’s John Doe statute, Cain held that it appeared to further the legislative intent behind it and the state’s other uninsured motorist laws.
Wes Kissinger of Harrison, White, Smith & Coggins in Spartanburg represented Morris. Jason Maertens and Kurt Rozelsky of Smith Moore Leatherwood in Greenville represented the defendants, along with Jonathan Berkelhammer of the firm’s Greensboro, N.C. office.
The 8-page decision is Morris v. Doe (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-034-13). A full opinion brief is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.
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