Supreme Court Seal
South Carolina
JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT
Site Map | Feedback
2004-UP-129 - Alberti v. Catawba Insurance Co

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

Regina P. Alberti, Guardian Ad Litem for William Cadden, a Minor Under the Age of Ten (10) Years and William Cadden, a Minor Under the Age of Ten (10) Years,        Appellants,

v.

Catawba Insurance Company,        Respondent.


Appeal From Charleston County
Thomas L. Hughston, Jr., Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2004-UP-129
Submitted February 9, 2004 – Filed February 26, 2004


AFFIRMED


J. Joseph Condon, Jr., of N. Charleston, for Appellants.

Bonum Sams Wilson, III, of Charleston, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM: Regina Alberti and William Cadden brought a declaratory action against Catawba Insurance Company to determine if uninsured motorist coverage applied to an accidental shooting that took place outside a car with a firearm found in the glove compartment of the car.  The trial judge found the uninsured motorist coverage did not apply.  We affirm. 

FACTS

While Alberti and her grandson William (“Appellants”) were visiting George Beard on April 15, 1997, William, age five at the time, entered Beard’s parked car and retrieved a gun from the glove compartment. William was outside the car when the gun discharged, seriously injuring his right hand. Alberti had an insurance policy with Catawba that provided for uninsured motorist coverage. Appellants filed a declaratory judgment action on August 9, 2000 to determine if the UM coverage applied to this accident.  The parties stipulated that the amount of damages exceeded the liability coverage on the vehicle, and therefore, if there was coverage, Catawba would pay the policy limits of the UM coverage.  On March 14, 2002, the trial judge ruled the UM coverage did not apply.  We affirm.  

ISSUE

Did the trial court err in finding that UM coverage did not apply where the injury resulted from a gun that was retrieved from the glove compartment of Alberti’s car?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

“A suit for declaratory judgment is neither legal nor equitable, but is determined by the nature of the underlying issue.”  Antley v. Nobel Ins. Co., 350 S.C. 621, 625, 567 S.E.2d 872, 874 (2002) (citing Felts v. Richland County, 303 S.C. 354, 356, 400 S.E.2d 781, 782 (1991)).  “An action to determine coverage under an insurance policy is an action at law.”  S.C. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Wilson, 344 S.C. 525, 528-29, 544 S.E.2d 848, 849 (Ct. App. 2001).  “In an action at law, the trial judge’s factual findings will not be disturbed on appeal unless a review of the record reveals there is no evidence which reasonably supports the judge’s findings.” Id.

LAW/ANALYSIS

Appellants argue uninsured motorist coverage should apply to cover William’s injuries because Beard’s car was used to store a gun.  We disagree.

A party making a claim under a car insurance policy for personal injuries arising out of the “ownership, maintenance, or use” of a car must meet three requirements: a causal chain between the car and the injury, the absence of an act breaking the causal chain, and the use of the car as transportation at the time of the injury. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Bookert, 337 S.C. 291, 293, 523 S.E.2d 181, 182 (1999). There is a causal chain if the car was an active accessory to the injury; if the car was something less than proximate cause, but more than the mere site of the injury; and if the injury is foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of the car. Id. 

No causal connection exists in this case because the record fails to satisfy the three-part test. First, the car was not an active accessory to the injury; it was merely a storage place for the gun.  Second, the car was not the situs of the injury, as William was not injured until he was outside the car.  Finally, the injury to William, inflicted from a gun retrieved from the glove compartment, is not foreseeably identifiable with the normal use of a car. 

Even if a causal link existed between the car and the injury, that link was broken by the self-inflicted nature of the injury. William pulled the trigger after removing the gun from the car. That act was one of independent significance which broke any potential causal connection since the car itself was not used to injure William.  As the trial judge explained in his order, “[h]ad the vehicle hit a pothole, causing the gun to discharge and injure the minor Plaintiff, the Court would be faced with a claim of an entirely different nature.” Finally, the record clearly demonstrates that the car was not being used for transportation since it was parked at the time of the injury. 

The facts of this case are quite different from cases meeting the three-part test, such as Wausau Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Howser, 309 S.C. 269, 422 S.E.2d 106 (1992) and Home Ins. Co. v. Towe, 314 S.C. 105, 441 S.E.2d 825 (1994).  In Howser, the court held that gunshot injuries sustained during a vehicular chase by an unknown assailant in an unidentified car arose out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured automobile.  The court stated:

Only through use of his vehicle was the assailant able to closely pursue Howser, 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.  Additionally, only a motor vehicle could have provided the assailant a quick and successful escape.  Thus, we find a sufficient causal connection exists between the use of the assailant’s vehicle and Howser’s injuries.

Howser, 309 S.C. at 273, 422 S.E.2d at 108.

As for Towe, the injuries occurred when a bottle thrown from a car struck the victim.  The court found the use of the car placed the assailant in the position to throw a bottle, and the car’s speed contributed to the seriousness of the injury.  Towe, 314 S.C. at 107, 441 S.E.2d at 827.  Therefore, the court held the car was an active accessory and a causal connection existed between the use of the car and the injuries.  Id. at 108, 441 S.E.2d at 827.

The present case more closely resembles State Farm & Cas. Co. v. Aytes, 332 S.C. 30, 503 S.E.2d 744 (1998).  There, an assailant used a car to transport the victim to a certain location.  Having reached that destination, the assailant went around to the passenger side of the car, intending to harm the victim.  The victim retrieved a gun from the glove compartment to defend herself, but the assailant gained control of the gun. The assailant, while standing outside the car, fired the gun toward the victim, who was sitting inside. The victim, an insured passenger, sought UM benefits for the gunshot injuries.  Id. at 33, 503 S.E.2d at 746.  Although the car was the situs of the injuries, the court found no UM coverage applied because the car was neither an active accessory nor a means of transportation at the time of the injury.  In addition, the court stated if there was a causal link, it was broken when the assailant exited the car.  Id. at 35, 503 S.E.2d at 746.      

CONCLUSION

Based on the above, the decision of the trial court is

AFFIRMED.

HEARN, C.J., ANDERSON and BEATTY, JJ., concur.