University of Vermont AAHS

Halstenson v. State Farm Insurance Co.

 

Minnesota Court of Appeals
UNPUBLISHED, 1993 WL 164793
May 18, 1993

 

Summary of Opinion

Mr. Halstenson was driving his horse with carriage. When he entered his driveway, something spooked the horse and Mr. Halstenson was severely injured. Believing that a motorist had spooked the horse, Mr. Halstenson filed an uninsured motorist claim with his insurance company. The company denied the claim. A lawsuit was filed and the trial court also denied the claim.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the trial court. Even if it could be shown that the automobile caused the horse to spook, there was no evidence that the driver of the unknown vehicle was in any way negligent. Without negligence on the part of the uninsured motorist, there is no claim under the uninsured motorist provision of Mr. Halstenson's policy.

Text of Opinion

 

Appellant Steven Halstenson appeals the trial court's grant of summary judgment to respondent State Farm Insurance Companies, his uninsured motorist insurance carrier, arguing that an unknown automobile frightened his horse and caused Halstenson injury. We affirm.

Because this is an appeal from a summary judgment in favor of the respondent, these are the facts with all reasonable inferences drawn in favor of the appellant:

Steven Halstenson took his horse and carriage out for a ride through rural Hugo, where he owned ten acres along a gravel road. Near the end of his tour, he stopped in front of his neighbor Don Rudeen's house for a picket fence chat. Halstenson then departed and rounded a corner where Rudeen could not see him. Shortly after Halstenson disappeared from his view, Rudeen saw a car speed by and turn the same corner.

Halstenson turned into his driveway when he suddenly heard a loud noise behind him similar to a roaring snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle. His horse, apparently spooked by the noise, bolted forward, pulling Halstenson's carriage into a parked car. The carriage fell apart and Halstenson was seriously hurt.

Halstenson owned a car insured by State Farm. He filed a claim, asserting that because a noisy car caused the horse to bolt, the unknown car was "uninsured" under No-Fault law, making State Farm liable. State Farm denied the claim. After Halstenson filed suit, State Farm was granted summary judgment. This appeal is from that judgment.

DECISION

I. Standard for summary judgment

Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no dispute as to any material facts and the movant establishes that it should prevail as a matter of law. Minn. R. Civ. P. 56.01. Review is limited to determining whether there are disputed material facts and whether the trial court erred in its application of the law. Betlach v. Wayzata Condominium, 281 N.W.2d 328, 330 (Minn. 1979).

II. Law of uninsured motor vehicles

Minnesota law requires an insurer to cover damages suffered when an insured is injured by an uninsured motor vehicle. Minn. Stat. s 65B.49, subd. 3a (1990). The elements of an uninsured motorist claim are:

An uninsured motor vehicle was involved. Minn. Stat. s 65B.43, subd. 18 (1990).

The injuries were connected to the use or maintenance of the uninsured motor vehicle. Continental Western Ins. Co. v. Klug, 415 N.W.2d 876, 878 (Minn. 1987).

The operator of the uninsured motor vehicle was at fault. Minn. Stat. s 65B.43, subd. 18.

The trial court did not issue a memorandum explaining its decision. Because each of these elements is disputed, each is discussed in detail.

A. Uninsured motor vehicle

"Uninsured motorist coverage" includes incidents where the injury occurs as a result of a "hit-and-run," defined by the State Farm policy as a "motor vehicle or motorcycle whose owner or driver remains unknown and which was the proximate cause of bodily injury to an insured." See Minn. Stat. s 65B.43, subd. 18 (1990).

State Farm argues that there was no uninsured motor vehicle involved because Halstenson gave a statement in which he stated that he thought that the culprit was a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle. Halstenson argues that this court should not consider that statement because it was obtained in violation of Minn. Stat. s 602.01 (1990) ("Any statement secured from an injured person at any time within 30 days after such injuries were sustained shall be presumably fraudulent [.]").

The dispute over the admissibility of the statement is irrelevant. Even if Halstenson's statement is admissible, the inference to be drawn (that it was not a car that spooked the horse) is dislodged by the inference to be drawn from Rudeen's admissible statement (that it was a car that spooked the horse). For the purposes of summary judgment, this court must accept the reasonable inference that an automobile rounded Halstenson's corner just after Halstenson did. Because no one knows the identity of the driver, the automobile is uninsured as a matter of law.

B. Sufficient connection

An injury arises out of the use of a motor vehicle if the motor vehicle is an "active accessory" in causing the injury. Klug, 415 N.W.2d at 878. Three considerations are important. First, causation must exist as "something less than proximate cause in the tort sense and something more than the vehicle being the mere situs of the injury." Id. (quoting Tlougan v. Auto-Owners Ins. Co., 310 N.W.2d 116, 117 (Minn. 1981)). Second, there must not be an act of independent significance to break the chain of causation. Id. Third, the injury must occur out of the use of the motor vehicle as a motor vehicle. Id.

These elements were met. Assuming Rudeen's statement to be true, a motor vehicle spooked a horse, resulting in Halstenson's injury. State Farm argues that because neither Rudeen nor Halstenson saw the car at the time the horse was spooked, the car could not have been an active accessory as a matter of law. However, there is no case law that requires a motor vehicle to be seen at the time of an accident in order for it to be involved in the accident. Halstenson never saw the car involved in the accident, but he certainly heard it. This is sufficient.

C. Negligence

Unlike no-fault benefits, uninsured benefits may only be collected where the injured person has the right to assert a remedy against a driver at fault. Minn. Stat. s 65B.43, subd. 18; see also Junker v. Allstate Ins. Co., 489 N.W.2d 821, 823 (Minn. App. 1992) (underinsured motorist claimant must be "legally entitled to recover" damages from underinsured driver in order to claim benefits).

A claim of negligence requires a showing of (1) a duty, (2) a breach of that duty, (3) a breach that was the proximate cause of the injury, and (4) an actual injury. Schweich v. Ziegler, Inc., 463 N.W.2d 722, 729 (Minn. 1990). The fourth element is not disputed.

1. Duty and breach

Halstenson states that under Nelson v. Halland, 127 Minn. 188, 149 N.W. 194 (1914), a motorist has an absolute legal duty to avoid frightening horses pulling horse-drawn carts by slowing down or stopping. We decline to follow Nelson. Nelson was written in an age when horses were plentiful and motor vehicles were scarce. By statute, a motorist was required to take extraordinary steps to avoid damage to horses or their cargo, and the law then strongly favored the rights of horse drivers over motorists. See, e.g., Minn. Gen. Stat. s 2634 (1913). Radical changes in social conditions may require changes in longstanding jurisprudence, and such changes exist here. See In re Gardner's Trust, 266 Minn. 127, 134-35, 123 N.W.2d 69, 74 (1963). Motorists under modern traffic conditions are no longer required to yield to horse drivers in every instance. See Mays v. Siekman, 197 Neb. 77, 247 N.W.2d 613, 615 (Neb. 1976) ("a motorist is ordinarily under no obligation to stop or to take special steps to avoid a collision [with horseback riders or horse-drawn vehicles] therewith, unless the horse shows signs of fright or that its rider or driver has lost control of it.")

A plaintiff may not show that a duty is due to society in general, but that a duty is due particularly to him/her. Brager v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Fargo, 375 N.W.2d 884 (Minn. App. 1985). In this case, Halstenson must show that a automobile driver has a duty to avoid frightening an unseen horse located an unknown distance from the road. Halstenson has not done so.

Rudeen stated that Halstenson disappeared around the corner at "about the same time" that a car came racing down his gravel road. If Rudeen could not see Halstenson, the only reasonable inference is that the driver of the car could not see Halstenson either. Halstenson's statements say that he was in his driveway at the time the noise roared behind him. Nothing in the statements shows how far into the driveway Halstenson (or the horse) was. No evidence exists to suggest that the unknown driver should have seen the horse, either as he was racing near Rudeen or after he rounded the corner. The record contains no map of the area or evidence concerning the location (or lack) of trees or other obstructions.

Even if Halstenson had shown that the unknown driver owed him a duty to drive a car at a reasonable speed and sound level, evidence showing a breach of that duty is absent. Rudeen did not discuss the sound of the car, and Halstenson said it was "loud". However, neither stated that the sound was any louder than an average car, or that the horse would not have been spooked by an average-sounding car.

Halstenson has failed to show probative evidence that the unknown motorist owed a duty to him or that the duty was breached. As a matter of law, State Farm need not pay Halstenson uninsured motorist benefits.

Affirmed.


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