Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company v. Jeter et al
ORDER AND OPINION denying 26 Motion for Summary Judgment; granting 27 Motion for Summary Judgment Signed by Honorable Margaret B Seymour on 6/18/2013.(asni, )
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
DISTRICT OF SOUTH CAROLINA
Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company,
Trentcina Jeter and Carla M. Coulter,
C/A No. 3:12-1759-MBS
ORDER AND OPINION
On June 26, 2012, Nationwide Mutual Fire Insurance Company (“Nationwide”) filed a
complaint against Trentcina Jeter (“Jeter”) and Carla M. Coulter (“Coulter”), seeking a declaration
that the tort claims in an underlying lawsuit in state court do not give rise to a duty to indemnify
under an automobile insurance policy. ECF No. 1. On September 12, 2012, Coulter filed an answer
and a counterclaim seeking a declaration to the contrary. ECF No. 8. Jeter failed to file an answer,
and on September 19, 2012, Nationwide requested entry of default, which the clerk’s office entered.
ECF Nos. 11 & 14. Coulter and Nationwide filed cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF Nos.
26 & 27. On June 6, 2013, the court held a hearing and, following oral argument, granted
Nationwide’s motion for summary judgment and denied Coulter’s motion for summary judgment.
The court issues this written order to supplement that ruling.
I. RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
The following facts are based on Jeter’s and Coulter’s deposition testimonies from the
underlying lawsuit. Their testimonies are materially consistent, and the parties do not dispute the
In February 2012, Coulter, who is unable to drive due to a health condition, hired Jeter as a
“personal assistant.” ECF No. 26-1 at 4 & 8. On February 14, 2012, Jeter used her vehicle to drive
Coulter to a job interview at Synergy Home Care ("Synergy"), located on Harmon Street in
Lexington, South Carolina. ECF No. 26-1 at 11. After the interview had ended, as the women were
leaving the Synergy building, a dispute ensued between them. ECF No. 26-1 at 15. The dispute
continued inside the vehicle, as Jeter reversed her vehicle out of the Synergy building parking lot,
and drove the short distance towards the intersection of Harmon and East Main Street. ECF No.
26-1 at 15-16; ECF No. 26-4 at 19-20. As the vehicle approached the intersection, Jeter removed
a can of pepper spray attached to her key chain and deployed it in Coulter's direction, making contact
with Coulter’s face. ECF No. 26-4 at 13; ECF No. 26-1 at 19-20. When the vehicle reached the
intersection, Coulter exited. ECF No. 26-1 at 36-37; ECF No. 26-4 at 20. Jeter deployed pepper
spray from the driver's side window of the vehicle as Coulter walked away, but none of the spray
contacted her. ECF No. 26-1 at 23-24.
After Coulter had distanced herself from the vehicle, Jeter made a right turn on to East Main
Street, entered a parking lot to turn her vehicle back in the direction of Harmon Street, and returned
to the parking lot of the Synergy building. ECF No. 26-4 at 14. There, Jeter exited her vehicle to
confront Coulter and, again, deployed pepper spray in Coulter’s direction, this time making contact.
Id. at 14-15. Thereafter, Jeter left the scene in her vehicle. ECF No. 26-1 at 17. Coulter dialed
9-1-1, and police officers and EMS arrived at the scene. In the days that followed, Jeter sought
treatment for her eyes at several healthcare facilities, and doctors prescribed her medication. ECF
No. 26-1 at 28-32, 37.
Nationwide issued a policy that provided liability insurance coverage for Jeter’s vehicle,
which policy was in effect on February 14, 2012. ECF Nos. 26-6 at 4. The policy states that,
“[Nationwide] will pay for damages for which [the insured] [is] legally liable as a result of an
accident arising out of the: a) ownership; b) maintenance or use; or c) loading or unloading” of the
insured’s vehicle. ECF No. 26-6 at 11-13.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
A. Summary Judgment
The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute
as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED . R. CIV . P.
56(a). The party seeking summary judgment bears the burden of initially coming forward and
demonstrating an absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317,
323 (1986). Once the moving party has met its burden, the nonmoving party then must affirmatively
demonstrate that there exists a genuine issue of material fact requiring trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus.
Co. Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). There is no issue for trial unless there is
sufficient evidence favoring the non-moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party.
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 250 (1986).
B. Insurance Coverage and the Duty to Indemnify
According to South Carolina law, a liability insurer's duty to indemnify is based on evidence
found by the fact finder. Ellett Bros., Inc. v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 275 F.3d 384, 388-89 (4th Cir.
2001) (citing Jourdan v. Boggs/Vaughn Contracting, Inc., 476 S.E.2d 708 (S.C. Ct. App. 1996)).1
By contrast, whether an insurer has a duty to defend is determined based on the
allegations in the complaint from the underlying lawsuit. City of Hartsville v. S.C. Mun.
Ins. & Risk Fin. Fund, 677 S.E.2d 574 (S.C. 2009).
The sole issue before the court is whether Coulter’s injuries arose out of the ownership,
maintenance, or use of Jeter’s vehicle.
As an initial matter, the parties appear to agree that the record contains evidence of three
separate instances in which Jeter assaulted Coulter: the first occurred inside the vehicle as it
approached the intersection of Harmon and East Main Street (the “First Assault”); the second
occurred after Coulter had exited the vehicle but while Jeter remained inside the vehicle (the
“Second Assault”); and the third occurred in the Synergy building parking lot, after both Jeter and
Coulter had exited the vehicle (the “Third Assault”). The court will separately analyze whether each
assault produced injuries that arose from the ownership, maintenance, or use of Jeter’s vehicle.
South Carolina courts have devised a three-part test to determine whether injuries arise out
of the "ownership, maintenance, or use" of a vehicle: (1) there must be a causal connection between
the vehicle and the injury; (2) no independent act breaks the causal link; and (3) the vehicle is being
used for transportation at the time of the injury. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Aytes, 503 S.E.2d
744, 745 (S.C. 1998). The first element of the Aytes test requires a causal connection to exist
between the vehicle and the injury. "In this context, causal connection means: (a) the vehicle was
an 'active accessory' to the assault; and (b) something less than proximate cause but more than mere
site of the injury; and (c) that the 'injury must be foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of
automobile.' " State Farm Mut. Ins. Co. v. Bookert, 523 S.E.2d 181, 182 (S.C. 1999) (quoting
Aytes); see Peagler v. USAA Ins. Co., 411 F.3d 469, 472 (4th Cir. 2005). "The required causal
connection does not exist when the only connection between an injury and the insured vehicle's use
is that fact that the injured person was an occupant of the vehicle when the [injury] occurred." Aytes,
503 S.E.2d at 745-46.
1. First Assault
Nationwide maintains that, with respect to the first assault, a causal connection does not exist
between Jeter’s use of her vehicle and Coulter’s injuries. Nationwide argues that the vehicle was
not an active accessory to the assault but merely its location. To the contrary, Coulter argues that
a causal connection exists by virtue of the fact that the close confines of the vehicle coupled with its
movement prevented her escape and enabled Jeter to harm her.
For support, Coulter relies on Wausau Underwriters Insurance Co. v. Howser, 422 S.E.2d
106 (S.C. 1992), and Home Insurance Co. v. Towe, 441 S.E.2d 825 (S.C. 1994). In Howser, the
South Carolina Supreme Court found that a causal connection existed between the injuries sustained
by the victim and the assailant’s use of his vehicle. 422 S.E.2d at 107. In the course of a high-speed
pursuit, the assailant bumped the victim’s vehicle, pulled alongside it, and fired a gun in its direction,
wounding the victim. Id. The court distinguished the case from those in which the vehicle was only
used to provide transportation to the site of the assault, or in which the assailant happened to be
sitting in a stationary vehicle at the time of the assault. Id. at 108 (citing Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co.
v. Brown, 779 F.2d 984 (4th Cir. 1985)). The court held that the vehicle was an "active accessory
to [the] assault," reasoning that "[o]nly through use of his vehicle was the assailant able to closely
pursue [the victim], thereby enabling him to carry out the pistol assault. The gunshot was the
culmination of an ongoing assault, in which the vehicle played an essential and integral part." Id.
In Towe, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that injuries sustained by a tractor driver
were causally connected to the use of a passing vehicle. 441 S.E.2d at 826. In Towe, a passenger
in a moving vehicle threw a glass bottle out the window, attempting to hit a road sign but, instead,
seriously injuring a tractor driver who was traveling down the road in the opposite direction. Id. The
court explained, "[t]he use of the automobile placed [the passenger] in the position to throw the
bottle at the sign and the vehicle's speed contributed to the velocity of the bottle increasing the
seriousness of the . . . injuries[,]" thus determining that the vehicle served as an active accessory that
gave rise to the injuries. Id. at 827.
Although Howser and Towe are pertinent to the analysis of whether Jeter’s vehicle was
merely the site of, or an active accessary to the assault, those cases’ relevance is limited due to the
fact that both were decided before Aytes. Significantly, Aytes added to the causal connection analysis
the requirement that the "injury must be foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of the
automobile." Although prior to Aytes a few courts had acknowledged that such a requirement might
be relevant to the causation analysis, see, e.g., Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Brown, 779 F.2d 984 (4th
Cir. 1985); Hite v. Hartford Accident and Indem. Co., 344 S.E.2d 173 (S.C. Ct. App. 1986), the
South Carolina Supreme Court did not consider the foreseeability of the victims’ injuries in Howser
For guidance post-Aytes, the court turns to State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v.
Bookert, 523 S.E.2d 181 (S.C. 1999), upon which Nationwide relies. In Bookert, the South Carolina
Supreme Court analyzed whether a pedestrian, shot and wounded by a gunman riding in a vehicle,
sustained injuries covered by an automobile insurance policy. Id. at 181-82. The court of appeals’
decision relied on Howser and Towe to find that the vehicle was an active accessory to the assault,
causally connected with the victim’s injuries. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Bookert, 499 S.E.2d
480, 486 (S.C. Ct. App. 1997). The court of appeals reasoned that the vehicle was the "launching
pad" for the assault and the assailant's means of escape. Id. After granting certiorari to review that
decision, the supreme court decided Aytes. The supreme court reversed the court of appeals, holding
that the pedestrian's injuries were not foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of a vehicle. 526
S.E.2d at 182 (citing Aytes).
Nationwide also relies on Wright v. North Area Taxi, Inc., 523 S.E.2d 472 (S.C. Ct. 1999),
a case the South Carolina Court of Appeals decided after Aytes. Wright involved two assailants who,
while riding as passengers in a taxi, attempted to rob the driver. Id. at 473. The driver was shot
during the incident, causing her to lose control of the vehicle and crash into a parked car. Id. The
driver died from her injuries. Id. The court of appeals held that there was no causal connection
between the driver’s injuries and the vehicle because "the vehicle served merely as the situs of
shooting[,]" as opposed to an instrumentality that furthered the cause of the assailants. Id. at 475.
The court observed that "the same injuries could have occurred when the vehicle was parked, or
otherwise not moving, or when [the driver] and [the assailants] were standing outside the vehicle."
Id. at 476. In addition, the court held that the injuries the driver sustained were not foreseeably
identifiable with the normal use of a vehicle. Id. at 475-76.
Coulter's reliance on Howser and Towe is unavailing. In those cases, the at-fault parties
harnessed the speed and force of their vehicles and caused injuries that would have been difficult to
inflict otherwise. Neither case involved an assault that occurred within a moving vehicle. In this
regard, Wright is more apt. In Wright, the court rejected the argument that the moving vehicle was
“essential” to accomplishing the passengers’ criminal objective. Id. at 476. Likewise, in this case,
the court does not find that the moving vehicle was essential to accomplishing the assault, as Jeter
easily could have deployed pepper spray against Coulter when the vehicle was motionless, or while
the women were standing outside the vehicle. Indeed, Coulter accomplished the Third Assault after
both women had exited the vehicle.
With respect to Jeter’s argument that the inescapable nature of a moving vehicle could be the
basis for finding that a vehicle served as an active accessory to an assault, the court is unpersuaded.
Safe escape from a moving vehicle is rarely feasible, and the narrow confines of a vehicle make it
especially difficult for a potential victim to avoid any sort of sudden attack. To find a causal
connection based on the facts here would, in effect, carve out for moving vehicles an exception to
the general limitation that coverage does not lie when a vehicle is merely the site of an injury. As
such, the court finds that Jeter’s vehicle was merely the site of, and not an active accessory to the
Even if the court were to find that Jeter's vehicle was more than merely the site of the assault,
under Bookert, Coulter’s injuries are not foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of a vehicle.
Coulter argues that Bookert is distinguishable because the assailant in that case intended to use the
vehicle in an abnormal manner—to carry out a drive-by shooting—whereas Jeter assault’s was a
spontaneous act, during what was an otherwise normal use of a vehicle. This is not a meaningful
distinction because the test is not whether the vehicle was being used in a foreseeable or normal
manner at the time of the injuries, but whether the injuries are foreseeable with the normal use of a
vehicle. Injuries sustained during a pepper spray attack are no more foreseeable than the injuries
sustained by the shooting victims in Bookert and Wright.
For those reasons, the court finds that there is no causal connection between the injuries
Coulter sustained and Jeter’s use of her vehicle. Rather, Jeter’s assault was an act of independent
significance that incidentally occurred within a vehicle. To the extent Jeter’s liability in the
underlying lawsuit stems from the First Assault, that liability did not arise from the ownership,
maintenance, or use of a vehicle.
2. Second Assault
Nationwide argues that a causal connection does not exist between the injuries Coulter
sustained during the Second Assault and Jeter’s vehicle. By Coulter’s own admission, Jeter’s second
attempt to spray her with pepper spray was unsuccessful. Even if the pepper spray had contacted
Coulter, Jeter’s position within the stationary vehicle was merely the location from which she carried
out the assault. Moreover, for the reasons provided above, had Coulter sustained injuries, those
injuries would not be the type foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of a vehicle. To the
extent Jeter's liability in the underlying lawsuit stems from the Second Assault, that liability did not
arise from the ownership, maintenance, or use of a vehicle.
3. Third Assault
Nationwide argues that a causal connection does not exist between the injuries Coulter
sustained during the Third Assault and Jeter’s vehicle. The Third Assault occurred in a parking lot,
after both women had exited Jeter’s vehicle. Once Jeter exited the vehicle, any causal connection
that might have existed was broken. See Carraway v. Smith by S.C. Ins. Co., 467 S.E.2d 120, 121
(S.C. Ct. App. 1995). Although Jeter used the vehicle to return to the parking lot, the use of a
vehicle solely as a means of transportation to the location of where an assault takes place does not
trigger coverage under an automobile insurance policy. See Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Brown, 779
F.2d 984, 989 (4th Cir. 1985). The court finds that these facts do not establish a causal connection,
rather they show that the assault was an act of independent significance. To the extent Jeter's
liability in the underlying lawsuit stems from the Third Assault, that liability did not arise from the
ownership, maintenance, or use of a vehicle.
Because none of the three assaults resulted in injuries that arose from the ownership,
maintenance, or use of the vehicle, Nationwide’s insurance policy does not require it to indemnify
Jeter in the underlying lawsuit.
For the foregoing reasons, Nationwide’s motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 27, is
GRANTED, and Coulter’s motion for summary judgment, ECF No. 26, is DENIED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
s/ Margaret B. Seymour
Margaret B. Seymour
Senior United States District Judge
Columbia, South Carolina
June 18, 2013
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