In Evanston Ins. Co. v. Atain Spec. Ins. Co. (May 26, 2017) 2017 WL 2311401, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California revisited the reach of California’s “concurrent proximate cause” doctrine, and reiterated it requires multiple causes of harm to be “completely independent” in order to trigger coverage.
In Evanston, the insured Norcal’s two employees were acting in the course and scope of their employment as motorcycle escorts for a funeral procession. One of the employees, Hernandez, began directing traffic and pedestrians through an intersection while on his motorcycle. The other employee, Keyarts, rode his motorcycle towards the intersection, braked, but fell and slid his motorcycle into a pedestrian who had entered the intersection. The pedestrian sued Norcal and the two employees for negligence.
Norcal was insured by Evanston under an automobile insurance policy and by Atain under a CGL policy. Evanston tendered the negligence action to Atain for defense and indemnification, which Atain declined based upon an auto exclusion in its CGL policy that barred coverage for bodily injury arising out of any “auto.” Evanston defended the action, made a $105,000 indemnity payment to the pedestrian, and sued Atain for declaratory relief.
Evanston conceded the motorcycle that struck the pedestrian was within the Atain CGL policy’s definition of “auto.” Nonetheless, Evanston argued the auto exclusion did not preclude a duty by Atain to defend and indemnify the underlying action because the pedestrian’s injuries were the result of more than a single cause. More particularly, Evanston argued that, while the auto exclusion applied to Keyarts’ negligent driving of his motorcycle, it did not apply to Hernandez’s negligent direction of traffic and pedestrians, which also contributed to the accident. Therefore, Evanston argued coverage was triggered under the “concurrent proximate cause” doctrine established by the California Supreme Court in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Partridge (1973) 10 Cal.3d 94, which holds that, where an injury is proximately caused by two or more independent causes, the insurer is liable if any of those causes is covered under its policy.
In the California Supreme Court’s Partridge decision, a man and a woman were hunting rabbits from an automobile. The gun discharged and hit the woman when the automobile turned off the paved road onto rough terrain. The Supreme Court concluded there were two independent causes of the personal injury accident: the driving of an automobile to hunt rabbits, and the prior modification of the pistol to give it a “hair trigger action.” The Supreme Court, therefore, found both the homeowner’s policy and the automobile policy provided coverage because the liability resulted from two causes, one of which was related to the use of an auto and another of which was not related to the use of an auto.
In Evanston, the district court rejected Evanston’s argument under the concurrent proximate cause doctrine because it found Hernandez’s negligence was not “completely independent” of Keyarts’ negligent driving. Rather, the district court found the incident, “involved no instrumentality other than the vehicle  and there would have been no accident without the use or operation of the vehicle.” The court explained, “The complaint does not identify any other potential harm that could have occurred to the pedestrians as a result of Hernandez’s negligence besides those associated with negligent automobile use.” Thus, Hernandez’s negligence was not independent from Keyarts’ negligence, rendering the concurrent proximate cause doctrine inapplicable. Because the auto exclusion applied, the district court held Atain owed no duty to defend or indemnify the underlying action.
In summary, while the concurrent proximate cause doctrine remains the law in California, this decision reminds insurers and policyholders alike that the doctrine only applies where the causes of the accident or liability-producing event are truly independent. The district court in Evanston recognized there was no truly independent proximate cause of the injury that was unrelated to the use of an auto. Therefore, the take-away from Evanston is not to split hairs – or should I say hares – when attempting to argue the concurrent proximate cause doctrine. Only truly independent causes will invoke application of the doctrine under California law.
Stephen Green is a partner in the Firm’s Los Angeles office. His full bio and contact information can be found at: http://www.musickpeeler.com/professional/Stephen_Green/