November 29, 2005
Matter of Transcontinental Ins. Co. v Hampton (2005 NY Slip Op 51988(U))
Reported in New York Official Reports at Matter of Transcontinental Ins. Co. v Hampton (2005 NY Slip Op 51988(U))
|Matter of Transcontinental Ins. Co. v Hampton
|2005 NY Slip Op 51988(U) [10 Misc 3d 1056(A)]
|Decided on November 29, 2005
|Supreme Court, Bronx County
|Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
|This opinion is uncorrected and will not be published in the printed Official Reports.
Supreme Court, Bronx County
In the Matter of Transcontinental Insurance Company, d/b/a CNA Insurance Company, Petitioner,
Kim Hampton, Respondent.
Dianne T. Renwick, J.
In this special proceeding, pursuant to CPLR Article 75, petitioner CNA Insurance[FN1] seeks a permanent stay of arbitration of a claim for supplemental underinsured motorist (SUM) benefits sought by claimant Kim Hampton. The SUM claim stems from an automobile accident involving a van insured by petitioner. At the time of the accident, claimant Hampton had been riding as a passenger in the van. After settling her personal injury action against the tortfeasor,[FN2] Hampton sought SUM benefits under the endorsement of the policy issued by petitioner CNA Insurance. Petitioner, however, avers that claimant is not entitled to SUM benefits because the subject [*2]automobile accident was not the cause of her femur fracture. (The femur is the thighbone; it extends from the hip to the knee.) This Court now renders a determination based upon the testimonial and documentary evidence presented at the framed issue hearing, which suggests two alternative causes of claimant’s femur fracture, the impact of the car collision and a slip and fall on sidewalk ice.
Framed Issue Hearing
Eyewitnesses’ Description of the Car Accident
At the framed issue hearing, claimant Kim Hampton, who is legally blind, testified that on March 11, 1999, she was riding as a passenger in a van owned by her employer Advocates for the Blind. Hampton was seated, her lap seat belt fastened, in the first row of bench seats, behind the front passenger seat. There was an arm rest in the down position next to Hampton’s right leg. Upon crossing the intersection of 67th Street and 78th Avenue, Queens, the van collided with a another vehicle that had failed to obey a stop sign. As a result, the van sustained a “very heavy” impact to the front passenger side, causing it to swerve, propel forward and strike a building. Hampton reported that the impact from the first collision was “very heavy,” but the seat belt prevented her from falling off her seat. The impact caused Hampton’s glasses to fly off her face, and her upper right leg, from just above the knee, to up around her hip, to hit either the armrest or the door of the van. Hampton believed her upper right leg hit the door or the armrest, but she could not actually see without her glasses. Upon impact, Hampton felt a lot of pain in her right leg. Hampton then felt a second impact when the vehicle struck the building.
Immediately after the second impact, Hampton smelled smoke and got scared. Feeling that the van might explode, she moved to exit the van. She turned her body to the right, toward the rear passenger side door. While remaining seated, Hampton, who was heavy set (weighing close to 240 pounds) placed her left foot on the van’s interior step, in an effort to move her body toward the side door. She then opened the door and moved herself onto the floor of the van by sliding onto her bottom, while her leg remained dangling in a partially straightened position. Hampton grabbed the van door in an attempt to assist herself in standing up, but she could not do it and fell onto the sidewalk, directly in front of the van.
According to the driver of the van, Ruperto Duncan, the impact from the car was “very heavy.” After the van ran into the building and began to “smoke,” he exited the van’s driver’s side and walked around to the passenger’s side. Duncan then observed Hampton lying injured on the ground. Duncan informed the police personnel, who arrived at the scene to assist Hampton, that she had fallen on sidewalk ice upon exiting the van. At the hearing, Duncan, however, conceded that he did not actually witness her fall. In fact, Duncan testified that he did not speak with Hampton about the accident. He had no recollection how he got that information, but assumed that she had fallen on ice.
Conflicting Medical Opinions As to the Cause of the Femur Fracture
At the framed issue hearing, respondent presented a medical expert, Dr. Lynne Richardson, the attending physician at Elmhurst Hospital emergency room on the date of the accident. Dr. Richardson supervised the resident physician, Dr. Stuart Miller, who first saw claimant Hampton in the emergency room. Based upon her examination of the claimant and a review of the pertinent medical record, Dr. Richardson opines, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the femur fracture was caused by the two vehicle impacts on the day of the [*3]accident. Dr. Richardson explains that femur fractures are fairly uncommon as a result of a fall from a standing position because it takes a significant impact to break the femur. In addition, Dr. Richardson considered the fact that, immediately after the collision, the claimant experienced severe pain, which is one of the symptoms of femur fracture. Under the circumstances, Dr. Richardson surmises, the most likely scenario in this case was that the claimant suffered the fracture during the impacts to her lower body within the van, and then fell while attempting to exit the van due to the inability of her injured leg to bear her weight.
Petitioner CNA Insurance’s medical expert, Dr. Andrew Bazos, a neurosurgeon, disagrees with Dr. Richardson’s conclusion. Based upon his review of the pertinent medical record and the witnesses’ statements detailing the accident, Dr. Bazos opines, with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, that the femur fracture resulted from a sidewalk fall on ice, as was reported throughout the medical record, namely the “ambulance triage notes,” the “Rehab Medicine Referral to Psychiatry” and the “resident’s notes.” Dr. Bazos explains that femur fractures are caused by events that involve a lot force; it takes a sudden forceful impact to break the bone. In the doctor’s estimation, the collision could not have created sufficient force to break the femur bone. As support, the doctor relied on the fact that respondent had been wearing her seat belt prior to the accident and that there was no visible deformity in any part of the van near where the injured person had been sitting. In addition, Dr. Bazos explains, had the claimant’s femur been fractured during the car collision, the claimant could not have been able to attempt to get up, as she described, due to the severity of the injury and the claimant’s weight.
Courts may stay arbitration where “the particular claim sought to be arbitrated is outside the scope of the agreement to arbitrate.” See County of Rockland v. Primiano Constr. Co., 51 NY2d 1, 7 (1980); CPLR §7503 (b); Sisters of St. John the Baptist, Providence Rest. Convent v. Phillips R. Geraghty Constructor, 67 NY2d 997, 999 (1986). Courts have held that to qualify for no-fault benefits in the form of underinsured/or uninsured motorist coverage, the insured vehicle must be the proximate cause of the claimant’s injuries. See e.g., Walton v. Lumbermens Mut. Cas. Co., 88 NY2d 211, 215 (1996); Farm Family Cas. Ins. Co. v. Trapani, 301 AD2d 740 (3rd Dept. 2003); New York Cent. Mut. Fire Insurance v. Hayden, 209 AD2d 927 (4th Dept. 1994).
The seminal case on this subject is Walton v. Lumbersmen Mut. Cas. Co., 88 NY2d 211, 215 (1996), where the Court of Appeals held that “the vehicle must be the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury before the absolute liability imposed by the statute arises.” As the Court explained, “no-fault first party benefits are available only when the motor vehicle is the instrumentality that causes the injury plaintiff claims.” 88 NY2d 211, 213 (1996). Accordingly, “when a plaintiff’s injury is caused by an instrumentality other than the insured vehicle, liability for the losses sustained are more properly addressed outside the area of no-fault motor vehicle insurance.” Id at 214. Such interpretation, the Court held, “reflects the legislature’s intent to draw the line between motor vehicle accidents and all other types of torts and to remove only the former from the domain of common law tort litigation.” Id.
Here, as fully described above, the parties have presented two possible causes of respondent-claimant’s injury (femur fracture). Claimant asserts that her injury was caused by the impact to her body against the van during the collision. In contrast, petitioner claims that Hampton’s injuries had no casual connection to the insured vehicle; that it was caused by a [*4]sidewalk slip and fall on ice. This Court’s determination of which version is more credible would be dispositive of the issue of whether the injury falls within the ambit of no-fault insurance, as having been caused by the insured vehicle. Of course, claimant-respondent’s version falls within the ambit of no-fault insurance since it is based upon the claim that the femur fracture was caused by the impact of her body against the van.
Conversely, petitioner’s version, that claimant’s femur fracture was caused by a sidewalk slip and fall on ice, upon exiting the van, would not support a claim for no-fault insurance, since under such version the insured vehicle would not have been the instrumentality that caused the injury. Contrary to respondent’s allegations, proximate cause is not established merely because injuries occurred while entering or exiting a vehicle. Adopting this approach would be tantamount to equating proximate cause with the term “occupying” a vehicle. However, as noted above, the law is abundantly clear that more than occupancy is required to establish a casual link between a motor vehicle and a claimant’s injuries. Instead, what is required is that the motor vehicle was the actual instrumentality which produced the injuries. See e.g., Walton v. Lumbermens Mut. Cas. Ins. Co, supra; Matter of Farm Family Cas. Ins. Co. v. Trapani, supra; New York Central Mutual Fire Insurance v. Mark Hayden, supra.
Indeed, courts have consistently held that just because an injury occurs in or near a motor vehicle does not mean necessarily that a vehicle was the proximate cause of the claimant’s injuries. For example, in Sochinski v. Bankers & Shippers Ins. Co., 221 AD2d 889 ( 3rd Dept. 1995), the Appellate Division held that the claimant did not qualify for first-party, no-fault benefits even though the injuries occurred while the claimant was in occupancy of the motor vehicle. In Sochinski, the insured was allegedly injured when airborne particles caused by sandblasting at a highway construction site entered the car’s open window and lodged in his eyes. The court held that the claimant did not qualify for first-party, no-fault benefits for his injury to his eye because such injury would have occurred even if he had not been in his motor vehicle. Since the motor vehicle was wholly incidental to the event which produced the injury, it was not the instrumentality, i.e. proximate cause, of the injury. Id.
Likewise, in New York Cent. Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Hayden, 209 AD2d 927 (4th Dept. 1994), an injury that occurred immediately upon alighting a motor vehicle did not fall within the ambit of no-fault law because the vehicle itself was not the instrumentality that caused the claimant’s injury. In New York Cent. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Mayden, supra, the personal injuries suffered by the claimant-passenger occurred when he got out of the vehicle and fell through a hole in a railroad trestle after the vehicle’s left wheels became stuck in a gap between the track on the trestle and the road for vehicles. The court found that the injuries were not covered by the passenger’s uninsured motorist (SUM) insurance since the accident did not arise out of the inherent nature of the vehicle. Id.
Conversely, in Farm Family Cas. Ins. Co. v. Trapani, 301 AD2d 740 (3rd Dept. 2003), the claimant’s injuries that occurred while alighting a motor vehicle were deemed to fall within the ambit of no-fault law where the vehicle itself was the instrumentality that caused the claimant’s injuries. In Trapani, supra, the driver lost control of her car and struck a utility pole. The car’s impact moved the pole, causing its power lines to short out and rain sparks and hot pieces of wire down onto the 75-year-old claimant, who was standing in her garden along the roadway near her home. In attempting to run from this hazard, claimant fell and sustained injuries to her head and [*5]left knee. The court found that the vehicle proximately caused the claimant’s injuries since the hazard that caused the fall was triggered by the impact of the car on the pole. Id.
Here, assuming, that claimant Hampton’s injuries are attributed to a slip and fall accident on sidewalk ice, this Court would have to find that such injury does not fall within the ambit of supplemental underinsured motorist coverage, based upon the reasoning of Walton v. Lumbersmen Mutual Casualty Ins. Co., supra, and the aforementioned analogous cases. The hazard that triggered the sidewalk slip and fall the ice cannot be attributed, like Farm Family Casualty Ins. Co. v. Trapani, supra, to the use or operation of the automobile. Instead, like in New York Cent. Ins. Co. v. Hayden, supra, and Sochinski v. Bankers and Shippers Insurance Company, supra, the fall would have occurred even if claimant had not been in his motor vehicle. Under the circumstances, the vehicle was the mere situs of the accident, and thus cannot be the proximate cause of the injury. Cf. Lumbermen’s Mut. Cas. Co. v. Logan, 88 AD2d 971(2nd Dept. 1982).
The question that remains is which version does this Court credit as the actual cause of claimant’s femur fracture. In making such determination this Court is guided by several principles applicable in the context of a petition to stay arbitration of a claim for no-fault benefits. The petitioner bears the burden of showing sufficient evidence to justify a stay of the arbitration of respondent’s claim for SUM benefits. See Aetna Casualty & Surety Ins. Co. v. McMichael, 176 AD2d 315 (2nd Dept. 1991); In Re. Nationwide Ins. Co. 170 AD2d 683 (2d Dept. 1991). It is also the general rule that when there is ambiguity as to existence of coverage, doubt must be resolved in favor of the insured and against the insurer. See, Handelsman v. Sea Ins. Co., 85 NY2d 96, 101 (1994). Moreover, where possible, courts will generally opt in favor of ruling for no-fault coverage of an insured under the facts of the particular case, unless such a ruling would not be in cadence with the statutory language and purpose. See e.g., Johnson v. Hartford Insurance Co., 100 Misc 2d 367, 369 (NY Sup.Ct. 1979).
Evaluated under such legal matrix, the proof offered by petitioner is not sufficient to grant a permanent stay of the arbitration of the claim for SUM benefits, when juxtaposed with the proof offered by respondent-claimant. Both medical experts’ conflicting opinions as to the cause of the femur fracture have a legitimate factual foundation, but based on different versions of the accident. Under the circumstances, the determination of the cause of claimant’s injury is dependent, in substantial measure, upon an assessment of the credibility of claimant’s account of her injury, which is more consonant with plaintiff’s expert’s medical opinion. In assessing claimant’s credibility, this Court concludes that Hampton’s testimony was consistent, clear, candid, and, therefore, credible.
This Court, however, is troubled by the fact that the medical evidence is replete with the statement that claimant had fallen on sidewalk ice. Nevertheless, such troubling statement is, in the context of this case, insufficient to counterbalance respondent’s evidence. Significantly, no evidence from any witness was submitted directly attributing the troubling statement to claimant Hampton. Under the circumstance, it is equally likely that the sole source of the statement was the driver who reported it to the police personnel, albeit conceding at the hearing that he had not actually witnessed claimant’s fall; nor could he recollect the source of the statement. Viewed in its totality, the evidence preponderates in favor of a finding that the femur fracture was caused by the impact of the van’s collision with the automobile and building.
For the foregoing reasons, this petition is denied to the extent of declaring and adjudging that petitioner failed to meet its burden of establishing that claimant’s injuries were not proximately caused by the insured motor vehicle. The Clerk is directed to dismiss the petition forthwith. Accordingly, the parties are directed to proceed to arbitration of the Supplemental Underinsured Motorist (SUM) claim.
This constitutes the Decision, Order, and Judgment of the Court.
Dated: November 29, 2005__________________________
Bronx, New YorkHon. Dianne T. Renwick, JSC
Footnote 1:Transcontinental Insurance Company does business as CNA Insurance Company.
Footnote 2:The van was struck by a motor vehicle driven and owned, respectively, by Margaret and Herbert Adask.