Alexis v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., A04-1562.

Citation696 N.W.2d 109
Decision Date17 May 2005
Docket NumberNo. A04-1562.,A04-1562.
PartiesJeanne Marie ALEXIS, individually and as the mother and natural guardian of Jameson Alexis, Guetchina Alexis, Joshua Alexis, Joelwonson Alexis, Joemian Alexis, and Guetdina Alexis, minors, Appellant, v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent.
CourtCourt of Appeals of Minnesota

Sharon L. Van Dyck, Candace L. Dale, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, P.A., Minneapolis, MN, for appellant.

William M. Hart, Melissa Dosick Riethof, Meagher & Geer, P.L.L.P., Minneapolis, MN, for respondent.

Considered and decided by HUDSON, Presiding Judge; SCHUMACHER, Judge; and HALBROOKS, Judge.

OPINION

HUDSON, Judge.

Decedent Joseph Alexis and his wife's cousin, Henriquez Saintias, were found dead in decedent's Chevrolet Suburban, which was parked in the garage attached to decedent's house. It was later determined that both men died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by exhaust from the Suburban. Other members of decedent's family, who were in the house at the time, were treated for carbon monoxide poisoning. Decedent's survivors sought benefits under their no-fault automobile insurance policy. After a bench trial on stipulated facts, the district court ruled that the death and injuries did not arise out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle within the meaning of the No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act; therefore, decedent's survivors were not entitled to benefits. We affirm.

FACTS

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on September 29, 2001, appellant Jeanne Marie Alexis called 911 to report that her 8-year-old daughter was having trouble breathing. When the fire department and paramedics arrived, they asked appellant if she had a way to get to the hospital and if there was someone who could watch the other children in the house. Appellant responded that her husband was sleeping in the garage. When firefighters entered the garage, they found decedent and appellant's cousin, Saintias, unconscious in the family's 1993 Chevrolet Suburban. Both men later died. The subsequent police investigation concluded that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by exhaust from the Suburban.

On February 26, 2003, appellant filed suit against respondent State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, seeking economic-loss benefits and funeral expenses under the decedent's no-fault automobile insurance policy. Respondent asserted that the injuries to the decedent and his family did not arise out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle and, thus, coverage was denied. On May 26, 2004, the parties waived their right to a jury trial on the issue of coverage and stipulated that the first two prongs of the three-factor test set forth in Continental Western Insurance Co. v. Klug, 415 N.W.2d 876 (Minn.1987) had been met.1 The third prong of the Klug test — whether the vehicle was being used for transportation purposes at the time of the injury — was disputed. The parties, however, agreed to submit stipulated facts on which the district court was to rely in determining whether the third prong of the Klug test was satisfied.

Specifically, the parties stipulated to the following relevant facts:

• Decedent's family owned three cars: (1) a 1993 Chevrolet Suburban, (2) a 1998 Dodge Caravan, and (3) a 1989 Honda Accord. All three vehicles were insured by respondent.
• Decedent was employed by Carlson Floor Care and worked the night shift from 11:00 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
• According to decedent's supervisor, decedent "was always at work and always on time."
Appellant stated that "[o]n occasion when [decedent] returned home from working the night shift, he would rest in the car for a short time to avoid the morning noise of the children," but he "had never slept overnight in the garage."
• Saintias returned from work at approximately 3:00 p.m. on September 28, and he worked within walking distance of the family home.
• On September 28, 2001, after returning from work, decedent went fishing from approximately 8:30 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Decedent drove the Honda Accord on his fishing trip.
• After the decedent returned home from fishing around 8:30 p.m., he and Saintias went into the garage.
Appellant last saw decedent around 9:00 p.m. in the garage when she asked him if he wanted any food—he did not. Appellant last saw Saintias in the living room.
Appellant put the children to bed around 9:30 p.m. and then fell asleep.
• The decedent did not show up for work by 11:00 p.m. on September 28, 2001.
• At approximately 8:00 a.m. on September 29, 2001, appellant called 911 to report that her 8-year-old daughter was having trouble breathing.
• When the fire department and paramedics arrived, they asked appellant if she had a way to get to the hospital and if there was someone who could watch the other children in the house. Appellant responded that her husband was sleeping in the garage.
• Firefighters found the decedent "lying down on the floor of the rear passenger area" of the Suburban, and found Saintias "lying down in the rear area of the truck."
• The garage door was closed, the doors of the Suburban were locked, and the key was in the ignition in the "on" position, but the engine was not running and the gas tank was full.
• The decedent and Saintias died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Toxicology reports indicate that neither man had ingested alcohol or controlled substances.
• Precision Tune performed an emissions test on the Suburban and determined that the Suburban generated higher-than-normal levels of carbon monoxide in the first 20 minutes of operation.
• Excel Energy found no problems with the gas lines or appliances in the home.
• The police investigation concluded that the Suburban was the source of the carbon monoxide poisoning, the deaths were accidental, and there was no evidence to support an attempted suicide on the part of either man.

Based on these facts, the district court found that the decedent's death "was caused by carbon monoxide, which came from the Suburban," and that "[t]here is a direct causal connection between the Suburban and his death." The court found that the "causal link between the Suburban and [decedent's] death is unbroken by any other fact or event." But, in conclusion, the district court held that the "Suburban was not being used for transportation purposes" at the time of the injuries; therefore, the injuries "did not arise out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle within the meaning of the Minnesota No-Fault Act," and appellant was not eligible to receive no-fault benefits. This appeal follows.

ISSUE

Was decedent's death caused by an accident arising out of the use of his automobile for transportation purposes?

ANALYSIS

Under Minnesota's No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act, Minn.Stat. §§ 65B.41-65B.71 (2004) (no-fault act), an insured may recover basic economic-loss benefits for injuries "arising out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle." Minn.Stat. § 65B.44, subd. 1(a) (2004). A predominant goal of the no-fault act "is to allocate the costs of injuries causally resulting from motoring activities to the automobile insurance system." Benike v. Dairyland Ins. Co., 520 N.W.2d 465, 466 (Minn.App.1994), review granted (Minn. Oct. 14, 1994), and appeal dismissed (Minn. Apr. 5, 1995). Under the no-fault act, the phrase "`[m]aintenance or use of a motor vehicle' means maintenance or use of a motor vehicle as a vehicle, including, incident to its maintenance or use as a vehicle, occupying, entering into, and alighting from it." Minn.Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 3 (2004) (emphasis added).

1. Standard of review

As previously stated, the parties stipulated that the first two prongs of the test in Cont'l Western Ins. Co. v. Klug, 415 N.W.2d 876 (Minn.1987) were satisfied. Therefore, the only issue before the district court was whether, under the third prong of the Klug test, decedent's Suburban was being used for "transportation purposes" at the time of the accident. We must first resolve the parties' dispute regarding the appropriate standard of review on appeal. Appellant argues that because the district court's ultimate determination that the automobile was not being used for transportation purposes is a matter of statutory interpretation under the no-fault act, the appropriate standard of review is de novo. Respondent argues that the district court's finding that the "Suburban was not being used for transportation purposes" is a factual finding and, thus, it should be reviewed under a deferential, clearly-erroneous standard. Whether "an injury arises out of the use or maintenance of a motor vehicle is a question of law." Kemmerer v. State Farm Ins. Cos., 513 N.W.2d 838, 842 (Minn.App.1994), review denied (Minn. June 2, 1994); see also Klug, 415 N.W.2d at 877-78

(stating that the determination of whether an accident arose out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle is a legal issue that turns on the particular facts presented in each case). And it is well settled that appellate courts need not defer to the district court's conclusions when reviewing questions of law. Frost-Benco Elec. Ass'n. v. Minn. Pub. Utils. Comm'n, 358 N.W.2d 639, 642 (Minn.1984). Accordingly, we find that de novo review of the district court's decision is appropriate here.

2. Burden of proof

A second threshold issue here is which party must bear the burden of proof on the "transportation purposes" question. The supreme court shed light on this question in McIntosh v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 488 N.W.2d 476, 480 (Minn.1992), when it stated, "[t]o be eligible for no-fault benefits [the insured] must also, of course, meet the use requirement established in Klug by proving that her injury resulted from an accident arising out of the use of a motor vehicle." Although this statement could be characterized as dicta, this court has held — in reliance on the language of McIntosh—that "the party claiming no-fault benefits bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the...

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