Most people know that auto insurance covers injuries suffered by the driver and passengers of the insured vehicle in the event of a crash or collision. What doesn’t occur to many people is that the same insurance coverage also applies to injures that take place in or involve the insured vehicle even if those injuries don’t occur within the context of a car accident. For instance, if you inadvertently slam your fingers in your car door, your automotive insurance will apply to any medical treatment you require for your injured hand. A recent Missouri case relying on this principle made the headlines, in part because the facts of the case challenge the boundaries of what can be considered a vehicle-related injury, and partly due to the sensational details of the case.
The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of a lower court in their decision to uphold the original arbitration result between GEICO General Insurance Company and the injured plaintiff, identified in court documents by the initials M.O. In her original insurance claim, M.O. asserted that while in a romantic relationship with the insurance policy holder, she and the policy holder engaged in sexual activity in the insured vehicle, a 2014 Hyundai Genesis, during which event she contracted a sexually transmitted infection (STI). M.O. further asserted that her then-boyfriend (the policy holder) knew his STI status because he had been informed that he had a throat cancer tumor and had been diagnosed with a strain of HPV (human papillomavirus), but chose not to disclose that information to her, and instead continued to have unprotected sex with her.
HPV refers to any of several strains of the human papillomavirus and is the most common STI. While in some cases the virus clears on its own within two years without symptoms, in other cases it can cause genital warts or a variety of different cancers, including cervical cancer, cancer affecting the genital or anal regions exposed to the virus, or oropharyngeal cancer (affecting the back of the throat, tongue, and/or tonsils). Cancer resulting from HPV exposure often takes years or even decades to manifest. As genital warts and cancer are caused by different strains of the virus, many people only discover they have HPV upon receiving a cancer diagnosis. Every year in the United States, about 19,400 women and 12,100 men experience cancers caused by HPV, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
When her initial insurance claim was denied by GEICO, it was sent to arbitration. Arbitration is an alternative option to a lawsuit, and many insurance policies either allow for or require arbitration as the first line of dispute resolution. A third-party arbitrator, who is usually a lawyer, retired judge, or other legal expert with experience in the type of insurance claims involved, is hired to hear both parties present their arguments and evidence, and then renders a judgment. The arbitration process is typically much quicker to resolve than a lawsuit, and therefore saves both sides money in legal fees. In practice, arbitration often favors the insurance company, who chooses and pays the arbitrator, and is therefore more likely to select an arbitrator they believe will be sympathetic to their side.
This time, however, arbitration did not turn out in GEICO’s favor. In May 2021, the arbitrator agreed with M.O. that the sex act which took place within the insured vehicle “directly caused, or directly contributed to cause” M.O. to become infected with HPV. The policy holder was found liable for failing to disclose his infection status, and M.O. was awarded $5.2 million in damages to be paid by GEICO. The insurance company immediately sought to fight the ruling, filing motions to request a new hearing of the evidence and to toss out the arbitrator’s damage award. When these motions were denied, GEICO appealed those rulings to the higher court. The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the decisions of the lower court, leaving the $5.2 million damage award to stand.
Despite the sensational circumstances of this case, the legal underpinnings of it are sound. The plaintiff suffered compensable bodily harm while occupying the insured vehicle, and as such is entitled to appropriate compensation under the terms of the insurance policy. Is it likely that insurance providers will have their lawyers hard at work to update the language and terms of future policies so as to preclude claims of this nature from succeeding? Probably. But for the moment, any kind of injury or bodily harm that takes place in an insured vehicle – including catching an STI from someone who knowingly withholds their infection status – can provide a legitimate cause for seeking injury compensation.
Contact MyNJInjuryLawyer Howard P. Lesnik
If you or a loved one suffered an injury in an accident in NJ, you should contact an attorney familiar with handling these claims. An experienced NJ Injury Lawyer will know how to obtain medical records, videos, photographs, experts, locate witnesses and contact the insurance company so you can make a claim for your injuries.
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Please contact NJ Injury Lawyer Howard Lesnik, Esq., immediately if you were involved in an accident. I personally handle NJ personal injury cases on a regular basis. Please contact me now by email, by phoning 908.264.7701, or by completing the form to the right to schedule your complimentary 30-minute strategy session. Call me direct and I will answer 5 questions that you have about your potential claim.