Insurance Denial Attorneys – Cattle?

Here is a case that may apply to many of the rural areas of Texas.  The case is a 2020, opinion from the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals and is styled, State Farm Mutual Insurance Company v. Rolando Lopez, Individually and Rolando Lopez D/B/A R&A Transport.

This is an appeal of a summary judgment in favor of Lopez and against State Farm.  This Court reversed the trial court and rendered judgment in favor of State Farm.

The main point of this case is the interpretation of the words “in use” in the commercial policy at issue.  The policy provides in part:

We will pay all sums an insured legally must pay as damages because of a bodily injury or property damage to which this insurance applies, caused by an accident and resulting from the ownership, maintenance[,] or use of a covered auto.

We have the right and duty to defend any suit asking for these damages.  However, we have no duty to defend suits for bodily injury or property damage not covered under this Coverage Form.  We may investigate and settle any claim or suit we consider appropriate.  Our duty to defend or settle ends when the Liability Coverage Limit of Insurance has been exhausted by payment of judgments or settlements.

The policy does not define the term “use.”

A driver, Raul Ramirez suffered injuries when his vehicle collided with cattle that had wandered onto the roadway after Lopez failed to properly secure a gate after picking up cattle.  Ramirez sued Lopez and Lopez asked for State Farm to defend him in the lawsuit, which State Farm refused to do.

Texas courts broadly define “use” of a motor vehicle in the context of insurance policies.  It is a general catchall designed and construed to include all proper uses of the vehicle.  ‘Use” means “to put into action or service; to employ for or apply to a given purpose.”  The “use” of a vehicle may include the “loading and unloading” of the vehicle even when those terms are not specifically included in the policy.  Moreover, the intent to exclude coverage must be expressed in clear and unambiguous language.

By its sole issue, State Farm argues the trial court erred when it found that the language in Lopez’s automobile policy with State Farm provided coverage in Ramirez’s suit.  The parties did not dispute the relevant facts needed to determine whether the policy provided coverage: Lopez drove a truck to pick up a shipment at Fite Farms and is alleged to have failed to properly secure the gate while exiting, which allegedly led to the cows roaming on the highway and Ramirez’s collision.

This is a causation issue.  Courts have said that a covered liability under the auto policy required some causal connection between the accident and the use of a motor vehicle.  Whether this causal relationship exists between the use of the gate as part of the loading and unloading of the truck and Ramirez’s collision with the cattle is the dispositive issue before this Court.

Here, the gate in question could have been left open even if Lopez’s truck was not involved.  When the injury complained of is purely incidental to the use of a vehicle, this nexus is not shown and the policy does not provide coverage. This Court concluded that the use of the gate here was incidental to the use of the vehicle and merely furnished a condition (the unlocked gate) that made the injury by the presence of the cows in the highway possible; thus, but for causation is not present.  As such, Ramirez’s accident did not result from Lopez’s “use” of the covered vehicle as a matter of law.

This case discussed more law related to this subject and set of facts, that is good reading for a similar situation.

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