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Friel v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co., 2014 WL 1813293 (Del. Super. May 6, 2014) aff'd sub nom. Friel v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co. (Del. Jan. 28, 2015)

Delaware Supreme Court Affirms Superior Court’s holding that Plaintiff was not eligible for Personal Injury Protection Payments where the vehicle was not an active accessory of the injury.

Plaintiff was employed as a delivery driver by Southern Wine & Spirits (“SWS”). He delivered products to various customers, including Costco. Defendant Hartford Fire Insurance Company (“Hartford”) insured SWS. Plaintiff made a “pallet stop” at Costco on October 25, 2010. At a pallet stop, the product to be delivered is on multiple pallets inside the truck. In preparation for a pallet stop, drivers are responsible for getting a set of chains and a claw from a milk crate in the SWS warehouse. The chains and the claw are then used to connect the pallets to the forklift during the unloading process. Costco provided the forklift to complete the delivery.

On October 25, 2010, Plaintiff obtained chains and a claw from the SWS warehouse and drove 12 or 13 pallets of product to Costco for the pallet stop. He arrived at Costco, parked the truck, applied the air brake, and turned off the truck. Plaintiff exited the truck, opened the back of the truck, and removed the load bar, and awaited the arrival of the forklift.

Plaintiff alleges he was injured during the unloading process. During the unloading process, he was standing in the back of the truck. While unloading approximately the tenth pallet of product, Plaintiff bent down to hook up the chains and “felt a pop” in his back. His injuries include lumbar strain and sprain, lumbar disc derangement at L4–5, and lumbar facet pain. In addition to a workers’ compensation claim, Plaintiff filed a claim for personal injury protection benefits (“PIP”), which was denied by Hartford because his injuries did not arise out of an automobile accident. In turn, Plaintiff filed suit to recover PIP from Hartford.

In granting Hartford’s Motion for Summary Judgment, the Superior Court applied a two-part test to determine if the Plaintiff was eligible for PIP. First, the Court had to determine if the Plaintiff qualified as an occupant of the vehicle. A person is an “occupant” of the vehicle if he or she is either: (a) within a reasonable geographic perimeter of the vehicle or (b) engaged in a task related to the operation of the vehicle. Nat'l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh v. Fisher, 692 A.2d 892 (Del. 1997). The Court found that Plaintiff was an occupant of the vehicle because he was standing in the truck at the time of his injury.

Next, did the Kelty analysis to determine (1) whether the vehicle was an active accessory in causing the injury; and (2) whether there was an act of independent significance that broke the causal link between use of the vehicle and the injuries inflicted. Kelty v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 73 A.3d 926, 932 (Del. 2013). The Superior Court held that the vehicle was the mere situs of the injury and was not an active accessory in causing the Plaintiff’s injury. The Superior Court held that the Plaintiff’s injury did not occur by virtue of the inherent nature of using a motor vehicle. Because the Plaintiff was unable to meet the first prong of Kelty, the Superior Court held that he was not entitled to PIP benefits as a matter of law.

On appeal, the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment for the reasons set forth in its opinion.

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