Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Sanders, No. 73069

CourtSupreme Court of Oklahoma
Writing for the CourtALMA WILSON; HARGRAVE; SUMMERS
Citation803 P.2d 688,1990 OK 129
PartiesSAFECO INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, Plaintiff, and The Aetna Casualty and Surety Company, Intervenor, v. William A. SANDERS, as surviving parent and next of kin and in his capacity as Personal Representative of the Estate of Laura Lee Sanders, deceased; Tena Houghton, as surviving spouse and next of kin of Michael Houghton, deceased; Ashley Houghton, as surviving parent and next of kin of Michael Houghton, deceased, Defendants.
Docket NumberNo. 73069
Decision Date04 December 1990

Page 688

803 P.2d 688
1990 OK 129
SAFECO INSURANCE COMPANY OF AMERICA, Plaintiff,
and
The Aetna Casualty and Surety Company, Intervenor,
v.
William A. SANDERS, as surviving parent and next of kin and
in his capacity as Personal Representative of the Estate of
Laura Lee Sanders, deceased; Tena Houghton, as surviving
spouse and next of kin of Michael Houghton, deceased;
Ashley Houghton, as surviving parent and next of kin of
Michael Houghton, deceased, Defendants.
No. 73069.
Supreme Court of Oklahoma.
Dec. 4, 1990.
As Corrected Dec. 7, 1990.

CERTIFIED QUESTIONS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE NORTHERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA

Automobile insurer seeks declaratory judgment that the deaths of insureds, caused by thermal burns and smoke inhalation resulting from intentional criminal

Page 689

acts, are not within uninsured motorist coverage. The United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma, the Honorable James O. Ellison, certified four questions to this Court, pursuant to the Oklahoma Uniform Certification of Questions of Law Act, 20 O.S.1981, § 1601, et seq.:

1. Does the murder of Sanders and Houghton when they were murdered by being burned to death in the trunk of the automobile in question "arise out of the ... use of a motor vehicle" as contemplated by 36 O.S.1981, § 3636?

2. If the deaths arose out of the use of a motor vehicle, was there a causal connection between the use of the vehicle and the murders?

3. If the causal connection existed, do the acts of Hain and Lambert after the car was parked, constitute acts of independent significance to sever any causal link?

4. Were Hain and Lambert "operators of (an) uninsured motor vehicle" when they set the vehicle on fire and murdered Sanders and Houghton?

CERTIFIED QUESTIONS OF LAW ANSWERED.

Richard Carpenter and Chris Knight, Sanders & Carpenter, Tulsa, for plaintiff.

Jack Y. Goree, Goree, King, Rucker & Finnerty, Tulsa, for intervenor.

Greg A. Farrar, Farrar & Farrar, Tulsa, for defendant William A. Sanders.

R. Scott Savage and J. Randall Miller, Moyers, Martin, Santee, Imel & Tetrick, Tulsa, for defendants Tena Houghton and Ashley Houghton.

ALMA WILSON, Justice:

On the evening of October 6, 1987, Laura Lee Sanders and Michael Houghton were seated in a 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass parked in a parking lot in the Brookside area on South Peoria Street in the City of Tulsa. They were approached and subdued through a show of force by Scott Allen Hain and Robert Wayne Lambert. Hain and Lambert forced Sanders to drive. After driving for a period of time, Sanders was directed to stop. Hain and Lambert ordered Houghton out of the car. Hain and Lambert took Houghton's money and keys to his truck which was parked at the site of the abduction, then, tied up Houghton and locked him in the trunk of the car. Either Hain or Lambert drove the car a short distance then stopped and they locked Sanders in the trunk with Houghton. Hain or Lambert then drove the car back to the site of the abduction, the parking lot on South Peoria.

From the parking lot, with Hain driving the car and Lambert driving Houghton's truck, they drove to an isolated area near Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Both vehicles were stopped. With Sanders and Houghton locked in the trunk, Hain and Lambert began cutting the fuel line of the car. Hain and Lambert completed cutting the fuel line, the fuel line was ignited, and the car burned. Hain and Lambert left the scene in Houghton's truck. Sanders and Houghton died as a result of thermal burns and smoke inhalation sustained while in the trunk of the car.

The 1967 Oldsmobile Cutlass was insured by Safeco Policy No. J 296000, purchased by William Sanders, father of Laura Lee Sanders. The policy provides $100,000/$300,000 uninsured motorist coverage. Houghton's 1985 Isuzu truck was insured by Aetna Policy No. 218SX2367168PCH.

Personal representatives of the insureds (insureds) submitted claims to Safeco Insurance Company of America (insurer) for uninsured motorist coverage for the deaths. Safeco denied the claims and filed this declaratory judgment action in the federal district court. The Aetna Casualty and Surety Company (insurer) was permitted to intervene in this action. Upon submission of proposed undisputed facts and legal authorities from the parties, the federal district court certified the relevant facts and four questions of law to this Court, pursuant to the Uniform Certification of Questions of Law Act, 20 O.S.1981, § 1601, et seq.

The certified questions present first impression issues as to whether loss (personal injury or death) is sufficiently related to

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the use of a motor vehicle by an uninsured operator to come within UM coverage as contemplated by 36 O.S.1981, § 3636. Our decisional insurance law and the plethora of decisions from our sister jurisdictions involving similar issues reveal a common rule that these issues turn on the particular and unique facts in each case.

The four certified questions inquire as to the governing law and conclusions of fact. The governing law is set forth in answer to these questions. Inferences and conclusions to be drawn from the facts are matters to be determined by the trial court. Accordingly, the questions are answered, as follows:

1. Does the murder of Sanders and Houghton when they were murdered by being burned to death in the trunk of the automobile in question "arise out of the ... use of a motor vehicle" as contemplated by 36 O.S.1981, § 3636? Yes.

2. If the deaths arose out of the use of a motor vehicle, was there a causal connection between the use of the vehicle and the murders? Yes.

3. If the causal connection existed, do the acts of Hain and Lambert after the car was parked, constitute acts of independent significance to sever any causal link? Yes.

4. Were Hain and Lambert "operators of (an) uninsured motor vehicle" when they set the vehicle on fire and murdered Sanders and Houghton? No.

I.

INJURY RESULTING FROM A CHAIN OF EVENTS WHICH STARTS WITH THE USE OF A MOTOR VEHICLE AS THE DANGEROUS INSTRUMENTALITY ARISES OUT OF THE USE OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE.

The phrase "arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle" in 36 O.S.1981, § 3636 is descriptive of the coverage of the liability insurance policy with which the insured must be offered uninsured motorist coverage. The courts often commingle or treat as synonomous the issues of 1) whether injury arises out of the use of a motor vehicle and 2) whether injury is caused by the use of a motor vehicle. 1 This Court has not decided the meaning of "arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle" as contemplated by 36 O.S.1981, § 3636, nor established a causal connection test for uninsured motorist insurance (UM) coverage.

The pertinent parts of 36 O.S.1981, § 3636 2 state:

(A) No policy insuring against loss resulting from liability imposed by law for bodily injury or death suffered by any person arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle shall be issued, delivered, renewed, or extended in this state with respect to a motor vehicle registered in this or principally garaged in this state unless the policy includes the coverage described in subsection (B) of this section.

(B) The policy referred to in subsection (A) of this section shall provide coverage therein or supplemental thereto for the protection of persons insured thereunder who are legally entitled to recover damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles or hit-and-run motor vehicles because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death resulting therefrom. Coverage shall not be less than the amounts or limits prescribed for bodily injury or death for a policy meeting the requirements of Section 7-204 of Title 47, Oklahoma Statutes, as the same may be hereafter amended....

(Emphasis added.)

The legislative mandate of § 3636 is clear on its face. An insurer, issuing or renewing a motor vehicle liability insurance contract on a vehicle registered in this

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state, shall offer UM coverage to the insured for damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles. The UM coverage shall protect the insured from personal injury damages for which the insured is legally entitled to recover from an owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle. This legislative mandate may not be diluted. 3

As used in § 3636, the phrase "arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle", in ordinary and comprehensive words, encompasses a broad spectrum of factual sequences which might result in injury covered by the liability insurance policy. The phrase was first used in our statutes mandating public liability insurance. 4 Prior to enactment of our motor vehicle insurance statutes, the legal effect of the phrase "arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of a motor vehicle", as used in motor vehicle liability insurance contracts, was decided in Oklahoma Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. v. Mouse, 268 P.2d 886, 889 (Okla.1954).

In Mouse, while transporting a combine, the breather pipe on the combine lodged in the top of a bridge. The truck was stopped and Mouse was directed to climb upon the combine and dislodge the breather pipe. Mouse fell to the pavement and was seriously injured. In considering whether the truck was the mechanism that caused Mouse's injury, this Court said that in all reported cases where the cause of the injury was something physically attached to or immediately connected in some manner to the vehicle or its operation, the injury resulted from the use of the vehicle, even though some courts have adopted a broader definition. Upon examination of the chain of events, this Court concluded that the breather pipe, part of the vehicle within the contract, was the dangerous instrument that started the chain of events which resulted in Mouse's injury and therefore, Mouse's injury arose out of the use of the vehicle.

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21 practice notes
  • Campbell v. White, No. 80770
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • June 29, 1993
    ...Owens, 194 Okla. 96, 147 P.2d 149, 152 (1943). The subject expressed in the title of an act limits its scope. Safeco Ins. Co. v. Sanders, 803 P.2d 688, 692 (Okla.1990); Oklahoma City v. Brient, 189 Okla. 163, 114 P.2d 459-60 9 Not all the cases identify the approach as "functional." However......
  • First Bank of Turley v. Fidelity and Deposit Ins. Co. of Maryland, No. 85735
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • September 24, 1996
    ...cases in which federal-court questions were answered by supplying controlling Oklahoma law. Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Sanders, Okl., 803 P.2d 688 (1990)(UM carrier brought declaratory judgment action against insureds for determination of nonliability); Ohio Cas. Ins. Co. v. Todd, Okl., ......
  • 77 Hawai'i 117, Dawes v. First Ins. Co. of Hawai`i, Ltd., No. 15457
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Hawai'i
    • October 12, 1994
    ..."appropriate" for deciding whether claimants in Dawes's position are entitled to UM benefits. See Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Sanders, 803 P.2d 688, 691 (Okla.1990). Specifically, Dawes is entitled to UM benefits if Bockhorn's occupancy of Shimp's insured vehicle "started the chain of eve......
  • Forgues v. Heart of Texas Dodge, Inc., Appeal No. 02-0658.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • July 31, 2003
    ...language because neither is listed on the declarations page. ¶134 The circuit court relied on Safeco Insurance Co. of America v. Sanders, 803 P.2d 688 (Okla. 1990), to conclude that the "auto" exclusion clause precluded coverage. We agree with the plaintiffs that Safeco is inapposite. First......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
21 cases
  • Campbell v. White, No. 80770
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • June 29, 1993
    ...Owens, 194 Okla. 96, 147 P.2d 149, 152 (1943). The subject expressed in the title of an act limits its scope. Safeco Ins. Co. v. Sanders, 803 P.2d 688, 692 (Okla.1990); Oklahoma City v. Brient, 189 Okla. 163, 114 P.2d 459-60 9 Not all the cases identify the approach as "functional." However......
  • First Bank of Turley v. Fidelity and Deposit Ins. Co. of Maryland, No. 85735
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Oklahoma
    • September 24, 1996
    ...cases in which federal-court questions were answered by supplying controlling Oklahoma law. Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Sanders, Okl., 803 P.2d 688 (1990)(UM carrier brought declaratory judgment action against insureds for determination of nonliability); Ohio Cas. Ins. Co. v. Todd, Okl., ......
  • 77 Hawai'i 117, Dawes v. First Ins. Co. of Hawai`i, Ltd., No. 15457
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Hawai'i
    • October 12, 1994
    ..."appropriate" for deciding whether claimants in Dawes's position are entitled to UM benefits. See Safeco Ins. Co. of America v. Sanders, 803 P.2d 688, 691 (Okla.1990). Specifically, Dawes is entitled to UM benefits if Bockhorn's occupancy of Shimp's insured vehicle "started the chain of eve......
  • Forgues v. Heart of Texas Dodge, Inc., Appeal No. 02-0658.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • July 31, 2003
    ...language because neither is listed on the declarations page. ¶134 The circuit court relied on Safeco Insurance Co. of America v. Sanders, 803 P.2d 688 (Okla. 1990), to conclude that the "auto" exclusion clause precluded coverage. We agree with the plaintiffs that Safeco is inapposite. First......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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