Haagenson v. Nat. Farmers U. Property & Cas.

Citation277 NW 2d 648
Decision Date23 March 1979
Docket Number48335.,No. 48172,48172
PartiesGerald HAAGENSON, and his wife, Jeanette Haagenson, Respondents, v. NATIONAL FARMERS UNION PROPERTY AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Peterson, Holtze & Treat, Theodore N. Treat Jr., and Todd Maxwell Henshaw, Minneapolis, for appellant.

Abrams & Spector and Mitchell R. Spector, Minneapolis, for respondents.

O'Connor & Hannan, Frank J. Walz and John B. Blatz, III, Minneapolis, for National Assn. of Independent Insurers, amicus curiae.

Hansen, Dordell & Bradt, St. Paul, for Minn. Assns. of Township Farm Mut. Ins. Cs., Inc., amicus curiae.

Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel, Richard J. Nygaard, William J. George, Minneapolis, for Farmers Ins. Group, amicus curiae.

O. C. Adamson, II and Mary Jeanne Coyne, Minneapolis, for Federated Ins. Companies of Owatonna et al., amicus curiae.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

PETERSON, Justice.

Plaintiff Gerald Haagenson, owner of an automobile and a pickup truck, was insured by defendant, National Farmers Union Property and Casualty Company, under the Minnesota No-Fault Automobile Act, Minn.St. c. 65B. Plaintiff was seriously injured under unusual circumstances giving rise to a claim against defendant under the no-fault coverage of both vehicles; and, in addition, plaintiff (with his wife, plaintiff Jeanette Haagenson) made claims for damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress by nonpayment of his claims, and punitive damages.

A jury found that plaintiff's injuries were covered under the no-fault provision of the insurance contract on the pickup truck and, upon post-trial motion, the trial judge stacked the coverage of both vehicles,1 in the total amount of $60,000. This we affirm. The jury made awards to plaintiff and his wife in addition, $50,000 for emotional distress and $300,000 as punitive damages. These we reverse, but remand for assessment of the 10-percent statutory penalty for delay in payment of no-fault benefits pursuant to Minn.St. 65B.54, subd. 2.

The facts upon which plaintiff's claims are based may be briefly stated. In the early morning hours of March 27, 1976, Dennis Crouch drove his automobile off a rural Fillmore County road, colliding with the power pole in an adjacent ditch. The pole broke and, with three powerlines intact, fell across the top of Crouch's automobile. Crouch walked to a nearby farm, where he telephoned his sister for assistance. His sister's husband, James Gordon, and plaintiff went to assist Crouch in Gordon's pickup truck, which Gordon drove.

On the way to the farm, Gordon and plaintiff stopped at the scene of the accident. Gordon stopped his truck on the right side of the roadway, still on the blacktop, a little east of the Crouch automobile, which had come to rest parallel to the road, about 15 feet into the adjacent ditch. Gordon and plaintiff were able to see the automobile to their right, illuminated by the truck's headlights. Opposite the passenger's side of the truck, the powerlines were 6 to 12 feet from the truck; the lowest powerline was 3 to 4 feet above the ground. The ditch was 2 to 3½ feet deep, sloping gently down from a narrow, 1-foot shoulder by the road. Dew or frost had formed on the grass in the ditch.

Because plaintiff had suffered amnesia concerning the details of the accident and because Gordon was the only other witness to it, the events which follow were as described by Gordon. After plaintiff got out of the truck and went into the ditch, he crawled upon his hands and knees to the Crouch automobile, looked inside, and called out that no one was there. In returning to the truck plaintiff, still crawling upon his hands and knees, disappeared from the area illuminated by the truck's headlights. Gordon then heard the passenger's door on the truck click and, out of the corner of his eye, saw the door move from halfway to completely open. Immediately after hearing the click and seeing the door move, Gordon heard plaintiff scream and then he saw a flash. Gordon got out of the truck and found plaintiff unconscious under the powerlines, his head facing toward the truck, approximately 5 to 6 feet from the passenger's door.

As a result of the accident, plaintiff suffered serious injuries which required amputation of his legs. He remained hospitalized until June 2, 1976. Plaintiff's wife left her employment and since plaintiff's release from the hospital has stayed with him constantly to care for him. Plaintiffs testified that they were unable to pay plaintiff's hospital bills and relied upon help from relatives and friends for necessities.

Three days after the accident, plaintiff's wife made written application for no-fault benefits to defendant through its local agent. An accident notice was transmitted to defendant's claim office in St. Paul, Minnesota, arriving there on March 31, 1976. The claim manager in the St. Paul office arranged with the General Adjustment Bureau (GAB) of Rochester to investigate the accident. Defendant received reports from GAB on April 22, June 1, June 14, and July 23, 1976. The reports received on April 22 and June 14 recommended that plaintiff was entitled to no-fault benefits; none of these reports recommended that plaintiff was not entitled to benefits. Plaintiffs checked periodically with their insurance agent and learned defendant was not convinced that plaintiff's accident occurred while he was in contact with the Gordon truck. The conversations with the agent and statements taken of plaintiffs by the GAB adjuster were the only communications between defendant and plaintiffs. About 140 days after the accident, plaintiff retained an attorney who made a written demand upon defendant for payment. This action was brought shortly thereafter, in mid-August 1976, at which time defendant had neither rejected plaintiff's claim nor paid the no-fault benefits.

1. We consider, first, the question of no-fault coverage. Minn.St. 65B.44, subd. 1, provides, in part:

"Basic economic loss benefits shall provide reimbursement for all loss suffered through injury arising out of the maintenance or use of a motor vehicle * *." (Italics supplied.)

Minn.St. 65B.43, subd. 3, provides, in part:

"`Maintenance 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." (Italics supplied.)

The contested factual issue for the jury was whether plaintiff was injured while entering into a motor vehicle, while the vehicle was being used as a motor vehicle.

The deposition testimony of Gordon, the only witness able to remember what happened during the accident, supports an inference that plaintiff slipped while opening the passenger's door of the Gordon truck, lost his balance, and fell back into the powerline. Earlier statements made by Gordon to an insurance adjuster and to the investigating police officer substantially support the description of the accident in the Gordon deposition. Defendant contends Gordon gave conflicting descriptions of the accident, but credibility of witnesses and the weight of their testimony is for the jury to decide.

A finding that plaintiff was injured as he was entering the Gordon truck is not contrary to this court's decision in Ostendorf v. Arrow Insurance Co., 288 Minn. 491, 182 N.W.2d 190 (1970). In that case, we held a girl struck 10 feet south of her father's automobile while crossing the street to the automobile was not entering her father's motor vehicle under the terms of the father's insurance policy.2 Our holding in Ostendorf indicates "entering into" will be given its popular, ordinary, and plain meaning and that a person 10 feet away from a vehicle is not "entering into" a motor vehicle for the purpose of deciding coverage under an automobile insurance policy even if that person intends to get into the vehicle once he reaches it. How close a person must be before he will be determined to be "entering into" a motor vehicle is a question of degree. In the present case, it is a permissible inference from the evidence that plaintiff grasped the door handle of the Gordon truck and, therefore, was close enough to the motor vehicle to be considered "entering into" it.

While the finding that a person is entering a motor vehicle will not establish in every case that an injury has "arisen out of the use of a motor vehicle," such a finding does establish the requisite causal connection in this case. We have...

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