Scott Stevens brought an action in Superior Court to compel arbitration with MAPFRE over an uninsured motorist claim arising out of a random shooting on I-93 that injured him and killed his only son. MAPFRE counterclaimed and sought a declaratory judgment that someone shooting out of a moving uninsured motor vehicle was neither an “accident” nor “the use of a motor vehicle” as required by the standard auto policy’s uninsured motorist coverage provisions.
The April 4, 2019 Superior Court decision, Scott Stevens et al. v. MAPFRE Insurance/Commerce Insurance Company analyzed the meaning of “accident” and “arising out of the…use of a motor vehicle” involving intentional acts causing personal injuries to an insured under the uninsured motorist provisions of the standard Massachusetts auto policy. The judge found that MAPFRE’s policy did cover Mr. Stevens for his gunshot injuries, notwithstanding MAPFRE’s arguments.
Based on the statutory definition of an uninsured motor vehicle, the decision also applies to under-insurance motorists claims.
A leisurely motorcycle ride turns deadly in Dorchester
Scott M. Stevens and his only child, Scott M. Stevens, Jr. were close. They worked as millwrights at the same company in Avon where Scott, Jr. was a foreman. The father and son were also motorcycle enthusiasts and often rode together on weekends. A little time before September 10, 2017, Scott, Jr., who was single, had bought a new motorcycle and a home in Taunton and moved out of the family home in Raynham.
On Sunday, September 10, 2017, Mr. Stevens and his son were returning from a baby shower on their motorcycles. While traveling in Dorchester at about 35-40 miles per hour on the southbound side of route I-93, a red Jeep Renegade pulled alongside them. Lance Holloman, a member of the Dorchester’s Wainwright Street gang, was driving the Jeep. With him, he had Michaela Gringas, the girlfriend of one of Mr. Holloman’s friends, as a passenger.
About twenty minutes before pulling his Jeep up beside the Stevenses, Mr. Holloman had rammed another vehicle three different times on the Zakim Bridge in Charlestown in a fit of road rage. Now, while driving beside the Stevenses, without any seeming reason, he suddenly fired three gunshots out the window of the Jeep in the direction of Mr. Stevens and his son.
Mr. Stevens felt a pain on his right side and saw a flash of red. Even though Mr. Holloman drove his Jeep into Mr. Stevens’ motorcycle, Mr. Stevens successfully stopped the bike without hitting anything. Only after Mr. Holloman had sped away from the scene, did he fully realize that one of Mr. Holloman’s shots had hit him.
However, another of Mr. Holloman’s shots had hit Mr. Stevens’ son in the head. He lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into the concrete divider. Taken to Tufts Medical Center in critical condition, Mr. Stevens, Jr. died early the next morning.
Later that day, Boston Police responded to a call at Mr. Holloman’s residence on Sansuit Street in Dorchester. Mr. Holloman’s mother had called the police claiming she had “just heard” gunshots. Police found Ms. Gringas, who had been with Mr. Holloman in the Jeep when he shot the Stevenses, dead from multiple gunshot wounds to her head. The police also recovered the red Jeep Renegade at the scene. It was uninsured. However, Mr. Holloman remained at large.
Three days later, Franklin police arrested Mr. Holloman after he crashed a vehicle he had taken from another resident in his building on Sansuit Street. When questioned, he gave a false name and claimed he had been kidnapped and was in fear of his life. After quickly identifying him, Franklin police arrested him on three outstanding warrants.
In December 2017, a Suffolk County grand jury indicted Mr. Holloman on two-counts of first-degree murder, one count of assault with intent to murder, and three counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, the Jeep, for the Zakim Bridge road rage incident. Also, indicted were Mr. Holloman’s mother, his sister, and a ten-year veteran Boston police officer. The charges against the mother, the sister, and, the police officer were obstruction of justice and witness intimidation arising out of attempts to aid Mr. Hollomon to escape prosecution. The police officer charges related to her lying to her superiors about contacts with Mr. Holloman while he was on the run.
MAPFRE claims Mr. Stevens being shot not an “accident” under the policy
Mr. Stevens had purchased uninsured motorist coverage from MAPFRE for his motorcycle. This coverage was in full force and effect on September 10, 2017, when Mr. Holloman shot him.
an insured would expect to be covered where an uninsured operator injured him by intentional behavior ‘including someone randomly shooting him with a firearm while operating their respective vehicles on a highway.'”
Following his recovery, Mr. Stevens filed an uninsured motorist claim with MAPFRE seeking payment of the policy’s limit. Stevens provided MAPFRE on February 12, 2018, with his medical records showing he had suffered a fracture of his right medial scapula, a comminuted right posterior fracture of his fifth rib, and that the doctors had left the bullet in his body because of the difficulty involved in safely removing it. His medical expense to date had totaled $30,188.73, but the evidence indicated he would likely need additional treatment. Based on these damages, Mr. Stevens demanded MAPFRE pay its full policy limit
In March 2018, after MAPFRE advised his claim was still under investigation, Mr. Stevens filed an application in the Superior Court for the appointment of an arbitrator. Under Massachusetts law, uninsured motorist disputes are arbitrated and not litigated.
MAPFRE responded to the application for appointing an arbitrator by filing a counterclaim seeking the Superior Court to declare the policy provided no coverage. Its counterclaim alleged that the terms of the policy required an “accident” and the “use of a motor vehicle” for coverage to apply. MAPFRE requested the court to rule that Mr. Stevens’ injuries resulted from an intentional act that was not an accident and the use of a handgun and not the use of an automobile.
To resolve the dispute, Mr. Stevens and MAPFRE agreed to submit an agreed statement of facts and cross-motions for summary judgment.
Court first finds shooting an “accident” under the policy’s definition
Ruling on the cross-motions for summary judgment and an agreed statement of facts, the court first addressed whether the undisputed facts “established an accident arising out of the use of an automobile such that it falls within the scope of the policy’s uninsured motorist provision.”
MAPFRE did not dispute that there was no evidence that Mr. Holloman’s act was other than a random criminal act and that Mr. Stevens had no known interactions with Mr. Holloman before the I-93 shooting incident.
The court agreed that from the viewpoint of Mr. Holloman, Mr. Stevens’ injuries were the result of intentional conduct. Such conduct would bar coverage if Mr. Holloman were seeking defense and indemnity from Mr. Stevens’ claim. However, under Massachusetts law, whether the incident was an accident has to be viewed from the perspective of the victim or in this case, Mr. Stevens’ viewpoint.
The court analyzed the agreed facts relating to the incident:
- Holloman was operating an uninsured motor vehicle at the time when he injured Mr. Stevens;
- Holloman was legally responsible for Mr. Stevens’ injuries:
- Stevens’ was legally and careful operating his motorcycle at the time of the incident:
- Stevens’s had not known or otherwise interacted with Mr. Holloman before the shooting: and,
- Holloman’s firing of the shots was sudden and unexpected.
Based on these undisputed facts, the court concluded that from the viewpoint of Mr. Stevens, his injuries were as a matter of law, caused by an “accident” as defined under the policy.
The court went on to state that the uninsured motorist provision did not contain any exclusion for injuries caused to the insured by intentional or expected acts even though the policy did exclude injuries occurring if the automobile was being used for public livery or in any racing, speed, stunting, or demolition contest or activities.
Also, the court found that an objectively reasonable insured, reading the relevant policy language, would expect to be covered where an operator of an uninsured automobile injured him by intentional behavior “including someone randomly shooting him with a firearm while operating their respective vehicles on a highway.”
Court also finds the accident arose out of the use of an uninsured automobile?
Notwithstanding the court’s finding that the shooting of Mr. Stevens’ constituted an “accident” under the policy, MAPFRE argued that there still had to be a causal relationship between Mr. Stevens’ injury and the use of the uninsured motor vehicle.
MAPFRE argued that prior Massachusetts case law barred Mr. Stevens claim. In particular, the insurer pointed to two decisions. The first involved a pedestrian shot by a person sitting within a parked automobile with the motor running. The second involved an uninsured motorist claim where following a two-car collision, the other driver got out of his auto, beat the insured up, and then fled the scene. The insured never could identify the assailant and sought uninsured benefits because the unidentified other driver had “hit and run.”
In both these cases, Massachusetts appellate courts found no coverage because the injuries the victims suffered did not “arise out of the use of an automobile.”
While the Superior Court judge did not dispute that MAPFRE had stated the case law correctly, h found the facts in Mr. Stevens suit were distinguishable as a matter of law.
In both the decisions MAPFRE cited, the injuries suffered occurred while the insured vehicle was either parked or stopped. To the court, this was a material distinguishing factor.
Instead, the court focused on another Massachusetts appellate decision involving a person walking her dog on a sidewalk who was struck in the face by a bottle, The vehicle’s driver had made a U-turn in front of the woman and while accelerating past her had thrown the bottle without looking.
After collecting the driver’s liability limits, the injured woman filed an underinsured claim with her auto insurer. Her insurer denied the claim alleging her damages did not arise out of “the …use of an automobile” as required by the policy. The insured sued her carrier for a declaratory judgment on coverage.
The insurer lost in the Superior Court and appealed. The Appeals Court found the claim did arise out of the “use of an automobile.” The bottle had been tossed from the vehicle while the vehicle was accelerating and therefore, to that court, it was reasonable to assume the vehicle’s movement affected both the trajectory of the bottle and the force with which it struck the pedestrian.
In Mr. Stevens’ case against MAPFRE, the Superior Court judge extended that analysis to point out that if Mr. Holloman had not been using his Jeep to maintain speed and keep up with the Stevenses who were driving at 35 to 40 miles per hour, he would not have been able to inflict these injuries. The judge reasoned the uninsured vehicle was an active accessory to the assault where Mr. Holloman had used his vehicle to approach and keep up with the Stevenses on the highway to make his assault.
The judge found sufficient evidence based on the undisputed facts to establish the causal link between the use of the motor vehicle and the injuries suffered by Mr. Stevens. Since the court had already ruled the injuries as “accidental” under the policy, the judge declared Mr. Stevens had uninsured motorist coverage for his gunshot injuries inflicted by Mr. Holloway.
MAPFRE does not file an appeal
MAPFRE had thirty days from the judge’s decision to appeal to the Appeals Court. That period expired on May 5, 2019, without any notice of appeal filed. Accordingly, the judge’s ruling finding coverage for Mr. Stevens claim is final.