Physical Assault on Officer After Traffic Stop Held Not to Arise Out of Use of Motor Vehicle

A police officer injured by a schizophrenic after a traffic stop brought suit against her attacker seeking coverage under her attacker’s homeowner’s insurance policy.  The Appellate Division ruled that the homeowner’s insurance company was required to provide coverage for the police officer’s injuries.

On May 13, 2007, plaintiff Patrolwoman Carmen Colon and Patrolman Daniel Battista of the Lawnside Police Department responded to a call from Patricia Whetstone regarding a domestic situation. Whetstone told the officers she and her daughter, Green, had an altercation, after which Green left home in her motor vehicle with Green’s three-year old son. Whetstone expressed fear for the safety of both Green and her child because Green was schizophrenic, and she could become aggressive when she had not taken her medication.

In response to those expressed fears, the officers broadcast a “check on the well being” alert for the car Green was driving, and about two hours later, at approximately 3:30 a.m., plaintiff spotted and stopped Green’s vehicle.

Plaintiff’s objective was to get Green her medication, not allow her to drive away from the scene, and to have a family member drive the car from the scene.

Plaintiff called for assistance, and when a second officer, Patrolman Battista, arrived, they approached Green’s car and looked first toward the rear passenger compartment to check on the child. Standing eight feet from Green’s vehicle, plaintiff told Green, “[Y]our mom is worried about you. You need to take your medications.” Green did not respond at first. She was fidgeting with her hands all over the dashboard. When plaintiff asked for identification, Green responded that her name was Beyonce Knowles. Then, after plaintiff asked Green to turn off her car and provide her vehicle registration, Green began “screaming [and] hollering . . . profanity.”

Plaintiff then directed Green to place her keys on top of the vehicle, and Green refused to do so. The keys were attached to a “drawstring” and Patrolman Battista went to get scissors or a knife to cut the drawstring in order to get the keys. As Patrolman Battista was returning, Green “kicked the door open” and moved towards plaintiff, swinging her hands and kicking at  her. Green then turned and attacked Patrolman Battista, knocking him to the ground, straddling him, and punching him. Plaintiff attempted to stop Green’s assault on Battista by grabbing her, at which point Green began punching plaintiff’s face and chest. Green then grabbed the radio that was strapped around plaintiff’s neck and bit plaintiff’s arm. Green’s teeth pierced the skin, causing plaintiff to bleed heavily. This altercation between the officers and Green took place about “a car length” away from Green’s car.

The injuries to plaintiff were severe. On December 9, 2008, plaintiff’s counsel notified Liberty Mutual of his belief that Whetstone’s homeowner’s insurance policy applied to Green and that plaintiff’s negligence claims against Green should be covered by the policy. The homeowner’s insurance policy provided coverage up to $300,000 in personal liability, but under Section II, 1(f), it excludes coverage for bodily injury and property damages “[a]rising out of [t]he ownership, maintenance, use, loading or unloading of motor vehicles or all other motorized land conveyances, including trailers, owned or operated by or rented or loaned to an ‘insured.’” Liberty Mutual does not dispute that Green was an insured covered under the policy on the date of the incident. Liberty Mutual denied the claim, however, based on the automobile exclusion.

The Appellate Division relied upon the New Jersey Supreme Court’s instruction that “in order to determine whether an injury arises out of the maintenance, operation or use of a motor vehicle thereby triggering automobile insurance coverage, there must be a substantial nexus between the injury suffered and the asserted negligent maintenance, operation or use of the motor vehicle.”  Penn Nat’l Ins. Co. v. Costa, 198 N.J. 229, 240 (2009).

The Appellate Division held that there is no substantial nexus where the use or maintenance of the vehicle is merely incidental to the injury.

Evaluating the specific facts of this case, as dictated by Penn National, the Appellate Division agreed with the motion judge that there was no substantial nexus between Green’s use of the automobile and the plaintiff’s injuries. The Court explained, “unquestionably, plaintiff’s injuries were sustained after she stopped Green’s vehicle, but Green’s assault upon the two officers occurred outside the automobile and was not “a natural and reasonable incident or consequence of the use of the automobile.”

See full opinion below:

CARMEN L. COLON VS. LIBERTY MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY (A-5224-09T2)

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