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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
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Eighth Circuit considers whether auto insurance extends to STDs in cars

A Missouri woman argued Geico owes her bodily injury coverage after a policyholder infected her with HPV in his car.

ST. LOUIS (CN) — An appellate panel of the Eighth Circuit convened Wednesday to hear arguments over an uncommon question: can you claim insurance benefits for catching a sexually transmitted disease from car sex?

A Missouri woman going by M.O. thinks so. In February 2021 she sent insurance company Geico a $1 million bodily injury claim after her partner M.B. — a Geico policyholder — infected her with HPV in his 2014 Hyundai Genesis. But the couple hadn't used protection, and Geico denied her infection was its responsibility.

The District Court of Western Missouri agreed. Geico brought the issue to the federal court in April 2021, and in March 2023 U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. decided the case in the insurance company's favor.

"Upon review of the parties’ arguments, the court finds that consensual sexual relations inside a car do not constitute a 'use' of the automobile within the meaning of the subject policy," Gaitan wrote in his decision.

The couple wasn't satisfied. She and her partner brought the case before the Eighth Circuit, hoping to have the case sent back to the district court for further proceedings.

In both Wednesday's oral arguments and in their court briefs, the couple argued the HPV infection — which subsequently led to M.O. developing cancer — was sufficiently connected to the use of a car and its insured owner to justify an insurance award. M.O. cited how her partner had never told her he had HPV, and how a Missouri arbitrator also found he owed her $5.2 million for negligence.

"[The couple] engaged in sexual activity in [M.B.]’s 2014 Hyundai Genesis at least once as of December 2017. M.O. claims that [M.B.] negligently failed to tell M.O. that [he] was infected with HPV and failed to use adequate protection and take proper precautions to prevent its transmission to M.O.," the couple wrote in their appellate brief. "Under the Geico Auto Policy, 'bodily injury means bodily injury to a person, including resulting sickness, disease or death.'"

Even if Geico's policy was unclear on this specific issue, M.O. and M.B. argued, they were still entitled to its benefits. M.B.'s Geico policy was issued in Kansas, and under Kansas law contractual ambiguity is generally decided in favor of the insureds.

"If the policy is ambiguous, the Kansas law requires it be interpreted in favor of [M.B.] and coverage. Under that circumstance, the policy would again provide coverage," the pair argued in their briefs.

The argument sparked debate on the appellate panel Wednesday. U.S. Circuit Judges Steven Colloton, Michael Melloy and Raymond Gruender — all George W. Bush appointees — wondered just how far this line of logic could extend. Would a decision in M.O.'s favor make Geico responsible for car sex that results in unwanted pregnancies?

"I don't believe that's a cause of action but that's a good question," M.O.'s attorney David Mayer said, without giving a definitive answer.

Mayer clarified his response by stating that unwanted pregnancies may not be "bodily injuries," but HPV and cancer are.

"This was a bodily injury. This poor lady received cancer and it's terrible. It's a bad situation," Mayer said.

Geico, in its own arguments, made an appeal to "normal" use of a car. The company's attorney Douglas Beck argued the insurance policy should only apply when "using an auto as an auto... for vehicular purposes." The company's brief similarly pointed to prior Kansas court rulings that denied coverage to people whose injuries were only tangentially car-related.

"This specifically is the basis for why sheltering in an auto, or the fact that the injury merely occurred in an auto — the act that caused injury was in an auto — is insufficient under all of the Kansas cases," Beck said.

For an example of a situation where he said coverage is warranted, Beck pointed to the 1995 case Garrison v. State Farm. In that case, the Kansas Supreme Court decided a man was entitled to coverage after his friend accidentally shot him with a shotgun on a hunting trip while taking the gun out of his car.

"They were driving, pausing, would get out, would hunt, would get back in the car, would drive to another location. They were using the car as an automobile is intended to be used," Beck said.

This argument also seemed to frustrate the appellate panel, as it made an appeal to an unquantifiable "appropriate" way to use a car. The panel argued that people use cars in various ways and for many purposes — including as a place to have sex.

Beck nevertheless stuck to his argument, saying that to grant M.O. and M.B. insurance benefits would fundamentally change the intent of Geico's policy.

"You're turning what is an automobile policy into a general liability policy without restriction," Beck said.

The appellate panel took the case under consideration but did not say when they would deliver a ruling.

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Categories / Appeals, Consumers, Health, Law

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