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Corriveau v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co .

Supreme Court of Virginia

December 19, 2019

JOSEPH S. CORRIVEAU, BY HIS MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND, TRACEY BALLAGH
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL.

          FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE CITY OF LYNCHBURG R. Edwin Burnette, Jr., Judge

          OPINION

          CLEO E. POWELL JUSTICE

         Joseph S. Corriveau, by his mother and next friend, Tracey Ballagh (collectively, "Corriveau"), appeals from the dismissal of his declaratory judgment action in the Circuit Court of the City of Lynchburg ("circuit court"), where he requested a determination that the uninsured motorist provision in Ballagh's automobile insurance policy issued by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm") provided coverage for his injuries arising from an assault that took place on his school bus. The issue presented on appeal is whether Corriveau's injuries arose out of the use of the school bus as a means of transportation.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The relevant facts are not in dispute.[1] In September 2009, Ballagh placed Corriveau on a Bedford County school bus so he could be transported to school. Corriveau, who was 10 years old at the time, has autism and was unable to speak. Alice Holland, the bus driver, and Mary Evans, the bus aide, who were aware of Corriveau's disability, used a special needs harness to strap and secure him into his bus seat. They similarly used a special needs harness to secure another child with disabilities, Timothy Kilpatrick ("Timothy"), who sat directly across from Corriveau. The purpose of the harnesses, the only two on the bus, was "to aid in the supervision of special needs children" on the ride to school.

         For summary judgment purposes the parties have assumed that, while restrained in his seat, Corriveau witnessed Holland and Evans physically and verbally abuse Timothy. Holland and Evans repeatedly kicked Timothy and slapped his head. Holland also choked Timothy to the point of asphyxiation and made a "conditional death threat." Evans hit him with a flyswatter, elbowed him, aggressively covered his mouth with her hand, pushed his head against the side of the bus, and sprayed a chemical in his face. Evans also struck Corriveau more than once during the incident.

         The State Farm policy's uninsured motorist provision covers an insured's damages for bodily injuries that "arise out of the ownership, maintenance, or use" of the uninsured motor vehicle.

         The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment in the circuit court. State Farm argued that coverage under the policy did not apply as a matter of law because Corriveau's alleged injuries did not arise from the use of the school bus as a vehicle in the ordinary manner for which it was designed. State Farm relied on Doe v. State Farm Fire and Cas. Co., 878 F.Supp. 862, 865-67 (E.D. Va. 1995), in which that court, applying Virginia law, determined that the injuries suffered by the victim of an abduction and sexual assault within a stolen vehicle did not arise from the use of that vehicle as a means of transportation. Quoting from Doe, State Farm argued that the vehicle was merely an enclosure for the commission of the criminal acts. In response, Corriveau asserted that the school bus was being used for its purpose of transporting children with disabilities to school and that the special duty owed by a common carrier supplied the causal nexus between Corriveau's injuries and the use of the bus. Corriveau argued that even if the bus were not being operated by a common carrier, it was a vehicle that contemplated contact between Holland and Evans and the children with special needs on the ride to school.

         The circuit court granted State Farm's motion for summary judgment and dismissed the case. The circuit court found that there was no causal connection between Corriveau's injuries and the use of the school bus as a vehicle used to transport children to school. The court determined that, because the alleged conduct was criminal in nature, it was "not normally contemplated by the parties to an automobile liability policy" and, therefore, was not a reasonably foreseeable risk with transporting students to school, "even with the special needs aspect of that transportation."

         The circuit court found as a factual matter that the "implements" that caused the injury were "the flyswatter, chemical spray, hands, feet, and elbows." In doing so, it found that none of the "implements" that caused the injuries were "implements of the vehicle. They were all independent of the vehicle itself."

         Specifically addressing the harness, the court stated that while the special needs harnesses may have made it easier for the incident to occur, they failed to provide the necessary nexus because "the [incident] could have occurred without the restraints" and Corriveau "would have witnessed [the assault on Timothy], whether he was restrained or not." The court concluded that "the only role the bus played was to provide a location for these acts of assault to occur, and [] I don't see that providing the necessary causal connection for the use of the bus . . . as a bus." The court reasoned that "the causal relationship of the bus being used as a bus is where this falls short."

         This appeal followed.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Summary judgment may be granted when no genuine dispute of material fact exists. Rule 3:20. "A grant of summary judgment must be based upon undisputed facts established by pleadings, admissions in pleadings, and admissions made in answers to requests for admissions." Andrews v. Ring, 266 Va. 311, 318 (2003). The circuit court "must consider inferences from the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Id. On appeal, this case presents a mixed question ...


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