Impact With A Motor Vehicle?

Attorneys handling auto claims involving auto insurance need to be aware of this case. It is a Texas Supreme Court case styled Nationwide Insurance Company v. Elchehimi. Here is some of the relevant information.
This breach of contract suit stems from the denial of coverage by Nationwide Insurance Company on a claim arising from a collision between insured Mohamad Elchehimi’s vehicle and an axle-wheel assembly separated from an unidentified semi-trailer truck. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Nationwide. Because there was no actual physical contact between Elchehimi’s vehicle and the unidentified truck as required by statute to trigger the uninsured motorist coverage, this court upheld that ruling.
Mohamad Elchehimi’s station wagon collided with a drive axle and attached tandem wheels that had separated from an eighteen-wheel semi-trailer truck. The unidentified truck, which was being driven in the opposite direction on a divided highway, did not stop. Momentum carried the axle-wheel assembly across the dividing median where it struck Elchehimi’s vehicle, injuring the occupants and damaging the car. Elchehimi had purchased from Nationwide a standard Texas personal automobile insurance policy, including the optional statutorily defined unidentified motorist coverage. Nationwide denied Elchehimi’s claim for uninsured motorist benefits because the impact between Elchehimi’s vehicle and the axle-wheel assembly was not “actual physical contact” with an unknown “motor vehicle” as required by the terms of the policy and the Texas Insurance Code.
Elchehimi sued Nationwide for breach of contract and breach of the duties of good faith and fair dealing. Nationwide moved for summary judgment, arguing that no actual physical contact occurred between Elchehimi’s vehicle and the unidentified truck. The trial court granted the motion. A divided court of appeals reversed, concluding that an issue of fact remained as to whether actual physical contact occurred. Specifically, the court of appeals interpreted the Texas uninsured/underinsured motorist statute, of the Texas Insurance Code to require actual physical contact only with an “integral part” of an unidentified motor vehicle as a “result of an unbroken chain of events with a clearly definable beginning and ending, occurring in a continuous sequence” rather than actual physical contact with a motor vehicle.
The parties do not dispute the facts of the collision and agree that the following statutory provision, which provides the parameters of coverage for damage or injury caused by unidentified motorists in Texas, governs this dispute:
For the insured to recover under the uninsured motorist coverage if the owner or operator of any motor vehicle that causes bodily injury or property damage to the insured is unknown, actual physical contact must have occurred between the motor vehicle owned or operated by the unknown person and the person or property of the insured.
A drive axle with two tandem wheels attached on one side lacks an engine or other means of propulsion. It is therefore neither a self-propelled vehicle nor a vehicle propelled by electric power from overhead wires. This wheel assemblage is not capable of carrying a load, nor can it be towed down a road by a self-propelled vehicle other than being dragged by or mounted underneath one, as Elchehimi’s expert witness testified. The axle-wheel assembly is thus not a trailer or semitrailer designed for use with a self-propelled vehicle. The axle-wheel assembly is not a motor vehicle under Texas Transportation Code, Chapter 601. Applying the common usage of the term and the definition in Chapter 601, this court concludes that physical contact with a detached axle and tandem wheels is not actual physical contact with a motor vehicle under the unidentified motor vehicle provision.