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March 16, 2002 - Colorado Appeals Court Says Auto Insurance Covers Sexual Attack in Car

People who are raped or sexually assaulted in their cars are afforded coverage under their automobile insurance policies, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in an opinion expected to have far-reaching consequences.

The unanimous decision, authored by Judge Joann Vogt, was the first in the state to address the insurance rights of sexual-assault victims attacked in their cars.

The case stemmed from the Dec. 8, 1998, kidnapping and rape of a 39-year-old Colorado Springs travel-agency owner who had uninsured-motorist and personal-injury-protection coverage with State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.

State Farm argued that the policy should not cover such an assault because the car was simply the place where the attack occurred and the assault was not a "use" of the car as defined in the policy.

But the appellate court decided otherwise.

"This a tremendous victory for all insured who have UM -- uninsured motorist -- and PIP -- personal injury protection -- coverage," said Tracy Pride Stoneman, lawyer for the rape victim. "It sends a clear message that the court is going to construe broadly, which they should, the phrase 'arising out of the use or the operation of the motor vehicle.' "

Calls to the lawyer representing State Farm were not returned.

The woman had total coverage of $250,000 with State Farm. The attack -- which began in the parking lot of Citadel Mall shopping center in Colorado Springs and culminated with the rape -- so traumatized the mother of two children that she was unable to return to her job, Stoneman said.

The victim had been shopping at the mall and had just returned to her car and opened the door when a man came up to her and asked for directions. During the conversation, he pulled an 8-inch knife, took the victim's keys, ordered her into the passenger seat and instructed her to get down as far as possible in the reclining seat.

When first confronted by the man, she was trapped between him and her open car door.

He drove her to an isolated area, where he robbed and raped her at knifepoint. At one point, she tried to escape but was restrained by an automatic seat belt.

Vogt ruled there was a close connection between the vehicle and the assault.

"Here, where the car door, the reclining seat and the seat belt all facilitated the assault, the car played a more central role in causing (the victim's) injuries than if it had merely served as the (site) of the assault," Vogt wrote.

Stoneman said the ruling will probably open the door to others victimized in their cars.

"I think it may go beyond impacting just women. Say for example there is a carjacking and a man is driving and in the course of that he's robbed and injured," Stoneman said. "There is a very good chance, based on this decision, that another court would find that his injuries arose out of the use and operation of the vehicle."

Both Stoneman and the court cautioned, however, that there are limits on just what automobile insurance policies will cover.

The facts of an individual case are very important, and both Colorado courts and other courts around the country have said that although cars may be loosely connected with an accident or a crime, that doesn't always mean insurance policies cover the incident.

Courts outside of Colorado, for example, have held that when an automobile is used to transport a victim but otherwise has no relationship to an assault, auto insurance policies don't cover the incident.

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