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Nationwide unit not liable to cover EMT responding to accident

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A unit of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. is not required to cover a South Carolina emergency medical technician who was struck by an uninsured driver while responding to an accident, a federal appeals court said Tuesday, reversing a lower court ruling. 

Margaret Cramer, an EMT who was employed by Walterboro, South Carolina-based St. Matthew Ambulance Service L.L.C., was injured in September 2013 while she and a co-worker were waiting for a patient to complete treatment at the H.F. Mabry Cancer Center in Orangeburg, South Carolina, according to Cramer v. National Casualty Co.

They noticed an automobile accident on an adjacent road, and Ms. Cramer activated the emergency lights on the ambulance and maneuvered it onto the road to block the accident site from oncoming traffic, court records show. She left the vehicle to check on the drivers involved in the accident, crossed the road to call the highway patrol and started to return to her vehicle. She was struck by an uninsured driver while she was standing about 8 feet from the ambulance. 

St. Matthew carried an automobile insurance policy from Nationwide unit National Casualty Co. providing up to $100,000 in coverage for damage caused by underinsured motorists. Ms. Cramer’s claim was denied by National Casualty and she subsequently filed suit against the insurer.

However, while Ms. Cramer was on duty at the time of the accident, National Casualty denied her insurance claim because she was not “occupying” an ambulance as required by the insurance policy, which defines “occupying” as "in, upon, getting in, on, out or off" of an insured vehicle, court records state.

Ms. Cramer sued National Casualty in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas but it was later moved to federal court. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Ms. Cramer, holding that she was “getting in,” and therefore “occupying,” the ambulance when the collision occurred because she was “engaged in the completion of acts reasonably expected from one ‘getting in' the vehicle.”

National Casualty appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia. The appeals court struck down that ruling, noting that Ms. Cramer was separated from the ambulance by a lane of traffic and passing cars and “had not even started to cross the street, let alone enter the ambulance.”

“At most,” the appeals court ruling said, “Cramer was ‘getting to’ or ‘approaching’ the emergency vehicle, which is beyond the terms of the insurance policy. To hold otherwise would impermissibly torture the plain language of the insurance policy and expand coverage in a manner unintended by the parties.”

Neither Nationwide or the attorneys for Ms. Cramer responded to requests for comment.