Truth is Stranger Than (“Pulp”) Fiction
With a fact pattern right out of the Terrantino cult classic film “Pulp Fiction”, Moncrief v. Nationwide involved a creative attempt by a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer to establish insurance coverage for the criminal misdeeds of an individual whose vehicle had a cameo appearance in the events of one macabre evening. In an apparent drug deal gone bad, brothers Kendall and Trevor Moncrief were shot and killed while riding in the back of a vehicle whose front seat was occupied by David Hamilton and Justine Erskine. Desperate to conceal the bodies and the evidence of their crime, Hamilton and Erskine showed up unannounced at the Delaware home of Raymond Glaeser. Like the John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson characters in the film, they were looking for help in disposing of the bodies.
As one would expect, the testimony of the culprits differed on whether Glaeser agreed or was “forced” to play the role of “Mr. Wolf” and assist in the efforts to dispose of the bodies. In any event, he agreed to take Hamilton and Erskine to a rural property in Maryland owned by his family. Hamilton and Erskine drove the vehicle with the bodies. They followed Glaeser, who was driving the work truck owned by his Maryland employer, to the rural location. The employer’s truck was insured by Nationwide.
Once at the rural location, Glaeser dug the shallow grave and assisted with burying the bodies. He then left the scene in the truck and went to work. Hamilton and Erskine left in the vehicle in which the murders had taken place. All were quickly arrested and ultimately convicted for their respective roles in the gruesome crimes.
The Moncrief family sued Glaeser in tort for civil damages arising from the death of Kendall and Trevor and the subsequent mishandling of their corpses. The family obtained a default judgment of $750,000 against Glaeser in Delaware’s Superior Court. (He was incarcerated and did not respond to the suit.) As judgment creditors of Glaeser, the Moncrief family then sued Nationwide directly as the insurer for the vehicle Glaeser operated during the fateful night. Nationwide denied the claim and argued before the Superior Court that the automobile coverage for the employer’s truck was in place to cover injuries and damages caused by the operation of the vehicle itself and not for criminal conduct unrelated to operating the vehicle.
The parties and the Court focused on Maryland law, as the state where the policy was issued and where much of the criminal conduct took place. Nationwide relied on a line of cases which focused on the vehicle’s role in the injuries when determining whether the care insurance should apply. Those cases held that where the vehicle was merely incidental to the injuries (such as where the perpetrator used the vehicle to arrive at a crime scene), the automobile coverage did not apply. Only where there exists a “direct causal relationship between the injury and the use of the vehicle” would the coverage be implicated. After the Superior Court agreed with Nationwide, an appeal was taken to the Delaware Supreme Court. In a decision issued in September of 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Superior Court and found the use of Glaeser’s work truck was merely incidental to the harmful conduct in question. The truck was nothing more than Glaeser’s transportation to and from the crime scene. Because he did not directly use the vehicle in causing any of the injuries, the automobile insurance coverage did not apply. The bizarre fact pattern and the interesting intersection of Delaware and Maryland law make this insurance coverage case a memorable one for lay persons and legal practitioners alike.