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Spokane woman loses insurance legal fight over definition of ‘automobile’

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 20, 2018, 6:32 p.m.

Passing school buses begin to slide as they pass each other. Buses aren’t considered automobiles under Washington state law and some insurance policies won’t pay claims filed by those injured by bus collisions. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Passing school buses begin to slide as they pass each other. Buses aren’t considered automobiles under Washington state law and some insurance policies won’t pay claims filed by those injured by bus collisions. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A Spokane woman’s legal battle to force State Farm to help pay for her son’s injuries hit a dead end this week after appellate judges ruled that Washington’s definition of an “automobile accident” doesn’t apply to bus crashes.

“It seems outrageous to me, which is why I took the case,” said Spokane attorney Marshall Casey, who argued the case for the crash victim’s mother.

The Division III Court of Appeals this week upheld an earlier ruling that State Farm was not on the hook to reimburse Svetlana Koren because two school buses hitting each other does not constitute an automobile collision under the state’s definition.

“The most scary thing to me is for pedestrians or people on bikes,” Casey said. “If you are walking, you better hope to get hit by an automobile and not a bus.”

The legal fight began on Jan. 21, 2011, when freezing rain made area roads so treacherous that the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office sent out a news release asking drivers to stay off the road if they could.

On that day, a school bus picked up Koren’s 11-year-old son to take him to Lincoln Heights Elementary School. When the boy’s bus arrived at the school, it collided with another bus and the boy was injured.

Koren previously had purchased insurance through State Farm and her policy included standard coverage for personal-injury protection that would pay for immediate medical bills for her son if he was injured in an “automobile accident.”

She submitted her claim to State Farm. It was denied in May 21, 2011, under the argument that two buses colliding was not an “automobile accident.”

As part of their legal argument, attorneys for State Farm noted that the Washington Legislature defined an automobile as “every motor vehicle registered or designed for carrying ten passengers or less.” Since both buses were designed to carry more passengers, the collision could not be considered an automobile accident.

A seperate liability claim between Koren and Durham School Services, which provides bus service for Spokane Public Schools, in 2016. Casey said he was not able to divulge the terms of that settlement. But he noted that the personal injury protection coverage under State Farm was designed to provide immediate help to cover medical bills until the liability case against the school district could be settled.

The argument over the State Farm denial finally got before Spokane Superior Court Judge James Triplet in 2016 and he reluctantly ruled in favor of the insurance company.

“While I don’t like this outcome, I cannot conclude that this definition is ambiguous,” Triplet wrote. “Just because of the application of the facts of this case result in a surprising and unfortunate outcome does not mean that the definition of ‘automobile’ in the policy is ambiguous.”

He later wrote that he could not “imagine that the legislature ever intended to limit an insured’s PIP protections when two buses are involved. However, it is up to the legislature to correct this definition if they, too, are displeased with this outcome.”

Casey appealed Triplet’s decision and appellate judges came to the same conclusion in an opinion issued this week.

“We are asked whether a collision between school buses qualifies as an ‘automobile accident,’ ” Judge Rebecca Pennell wrote in part. “Our answer is no. A collision can qualify as an ‘automobile accident’ only if it involves a vehicle meeting the definition of an ‘automobile.’ ”

Seattle attorney Greg Worden, who argued the case on behalf of State Farm, agreed with Casey that a pedestrian probably would not be able to submit a claim for personal injury protection if he or she was hit by a bus.

“I don’t think that an average person will think a school bus is an automobile,” he said. “It’s a lot different than an automobile.”

Asked if clients could specifically request policy coverage to include school buses on their plans, Worden said: “That’s beyond the scope of my involvement in the case.”

Casey said he and Koren will decide soon whether to appeal the case to the Washington Supreme Court. But he said if the ruling stands, pedestrians and bicyclists should avoid getting hit by a bus if they want an insurance company to help.

“What this means is they have written a policy that says you are covered by automobile accident but you don’t have coverage if you are a pedestrian and you are hit by anything designed to carry more than 10 passengers,” he said. “That’s the scary thing about this outcome.”