When Are You “Occupying” A Vehicle?

Weatherford Insurance Lawyers and those in Mineral Wells, Springtown, Aledo, Azle, Millsap, Cool, Brock, Willow Park, Hudson Oaks, and other places in the Parker County area need to know how to read an insurance policy.
One thing that attorneys need to have a good understanding about is how to interpret insurance policy definitions. Understanding how the courts interpret the language in the policy assists the attorney in advising a client in a proper course of action.
The Waco Court of Appeals issued an opinion in 1963, that is helpful in the determining when a vehicle is “occupied.”
The style of the case is, Ferguson v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Company. Here is some background.
Ferguson sued Aetna upon the ‘medical payments provision‘ of the policies issued upon her automobile. The policies provided medical payments for the named insured who sustains ‘bodily injury, caused by accident, while occupying or through being struck by an automobile.’ The term ‘occupying’ was defined in the policy as meaning ‘in or upon or entering into or alighting from an automobile.’
Ferguson had been to the beauty parlor. She left the beauty parlor, came out onto the parking lot where she had left her automobile. In front of the beauty shop was a board that went out into the parking area. Parked alongside of this board at the end of it was ‘an automobile’. Ferguson walked to the end of the board and reached out and grabbed the door handle of the car to support herself. While holding onto the handle for support, she stepped off the board and went down into the mud, breaking both legs and suffering other injuries. The car Ferguson had hold of was not her own, and she was not in the act of entering such car; she was merely holding onto the handle for support as she walked around the car on her way to her own car, which was parked further down on the parking lot. However, if Ferguson was ‘in or upon, or entering or alighting from’ this particular car, she would be covered by the policies.
The trial court entered summary judgement that Ferguson take nothing, holding that Ferguson was not ‘occupying an automobile’ within the definition of the medical payments of the policies which provide that the term ‘occupying’, is defined as ‘in or upon or entering into or alighting from an automobile’, at the time of sustaining injury.
Ferguson appealed, contending that the trial court erred in rendering the summary judgement, and that the policies afforded coverage in the factual situation involved. Ferguson further contended that she was ‘in or upon’ the automobile that she was touching if she had ‘physical contact’ with such automobile. She had hold of the door handle to steady herself as she went around the car; she was not entering the automobile; she had not occupied the automobile, nor was she intending to enter it; she was simply holding on to the handle to steady herself as she walked around it.
The sole question for the courts’ determination was whether Ferguson was ‘in or upon’ the automobile she had her hand upon at the time she fell and sustained injury.
The court ruled saying that they thought the language employed in the coverage of the insurance policies to be reasonably plain and unambiguous; and to say that Ferguson was ‘in or upon’ the automobile she had her hand on would be placing a distorted meaning, and unreasonably strained construction upon the described coverage. If she had been entering or alighting from the car she had her hand upon, at the time of her injury, a different situation would be presented. The court said they could not say she was ‘in or upon’ the car simply because she put her hand upon it to steady her walk around it on the way to her own car from the beauty parlor. Moreover, the court said it rejected her contention that ‘physical contact’ alone is the test as to whether an insured is ‘in or upon’ an automobile.
What do you think?