Officer Was Still ‘Vehicle-Oriented’ Even Though Out Of Police Car

James Rhein is a police officer with the Falls Township, Pennsylvania Police Department. While on duty on November 3, 2001, Rhein stopped a vehicle operated by Alexander Agye, which had been speeding. At the time the stop was effected, Rhein was operating a Falls Township Police Department cruiser.

After the Agye vehicle had pulled over to the shoulder of the highway, Rhein parked his police cruiser directly behind it. Leaving the engine running and overhead emergency lights on, Rhein exited his cruiser and approached the driver’s side door of the Agye vehicle. At some point during his conversation with Agye, the Agye vehicle began to move backwards. Rhein’s hand somehow became wedged inside the car door, and was injured as the vehicle rolled backwards and struck the front of Rhein’s cruiser.

At the time of the accident, the St. Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Company had issued an uninsured motorist policy to Falls Township. Under the policy, protected persons included “anyone in a covered auto.” Rhein’s police cruiser was a vehicle covered by the policy when the accident occurred. The policy further defines “in an auto” as including “on the auto, getting in or out of or off of it.”

When St. Paul denied Rhein’s claim under the policy, it then filed a petition for a declaratory judgment in federal court seeking a ruling that it had no obligation to provide coverage under the policy because Rhein was not “in his vehicle” at the time his hand was injured. The Court disagreed, and ordered St. Paul to provide coverage.

Under Pennsylvania law, a person who is not physically inside or in contact with a vehicle may nevertheless be considered an occupant of the vehicle when four tests are met: (1) There is a causal relation or connection between the injury and the use of the insured vehicle; (2) the person asserting coverage must be in reasonably close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle; (3) the person must be vehicle-oriented rather than highway or sidewalk-oriented at the time; and (4) the person must be engaged in a transaction essential to the use of the vehicle.

The argument in court focused on the third of these requirements – whether Rhein was sufficiently “vehicle-oriented” to be considered an occupant of his police cruiser. The Court had no doubt that he was: “One of Rhein’s routine duties as a police officer was to conduct vehicle stops, and to do so in his cruiser. When he necessarily exited his cruiser to obtain the offending driver’s information, the record reflects that Rhein intended to return to review the information, run the necessary background checks, and prepare the required paperwork. Clearly, he remained vehicle-oriented within the meaning of case law. The unexpected backward movement of the Agye vehicle and Rhein’s attempt to stop its progress into his cruiser did not serve to change that orientation. Police cruisers are regularly used to monitor the roads for speeding violations and to stop offending vehicles. These vehicle stops are transactions essential to the use of the police cruiser.”

St. Paul Fire and Marine Ins. Co. v. Rhein, 2008 WL 2928671 (E.D.Pa. 2008).

This article appears in the October 2008 issue