Court: Car Insurance Doesn’t Cover Van Fire that Burned Down House

A federal appeals court has ruled  the damages from a van fire that burned down a house under construction should not be covered by a Virginia auto insurance policy covering the van because the van was not being used “as a vehicle” when the fire erupted.

According to court documents, the case originally began in 2008, when John Robins was performing construction work on Steven and Cathy Ivey’s house in Virginia.

Robins had been working on the house for several weeks and was using his Ford Econoline van basically as a storage shed for tools and equipment, powering his equipment with a battery charger and electric splitter that he kept in the van.

He had his van parked there for about a month, driving to and from the house in a separate vehicle.

Robins left the work site for the weekend on Friday, August 15. On Sunday, a fire started in the van that spread to the house and caused nearly $293,000 in damages.

A handful of fire investigators all concluded that the fire had started as the result of “malfunction of equipment kept in the rear of the van, most likely an electrical problem with an extension cord or battery charger,” according to court documents.

After the fire, the company insuring the house paid the Iveys for the fire damage and sought reimbursement from Robins, saying that the incident was a result of his negligence.

Robins then sought coverage from State Farm, the provider of his Virginia car insurance policy, and Nationwide, the provider of his commercial general liability policy.

Each of the companies said the other should cover the damages.

Nationwide said that it should not have to pay the claim because it excluded coverage that was the result of Robins’s use of a vehicle. And State Farm said that it should not have to pay the claim because Robins was not technically using the vehicle at the time of the accident.

The 4th U.S. Court of Appeals found in favor of State Farm. The court noted that Virginia law says for a car insurer to cover the damages caused by a vehicle in an accident, it must be used “as a vehicle.”

The court wrote in its opinion that Robins was using the vehicle as a storage shed, not as a vehicle, and therefore fell out of the jurisdiction of an auto insurance policy.

The court reversed the district court’s ruling that State Farm pay for the damages, and the case was sent back to the district court for further proceedings.

About Ben Zitney
Benjamin Zitney has been covering the auto insurance industry for the past 2.5 years. Before coming to Online Auto Insurance News, he produced an extensive company history of the 30-year-old California Joint Powers Insurance Authority and worked at the Cal State Long Beach Daily Forty-Niner as a reporter, copy editor and news editor.

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