Dangerous Job Leaves Man Injured and Seeking Insurance

Ten years ago, a Sturgis man was electrocuted while servicing a power line from a boom truck. He was badly injured but lived to tell about it. He and his lawyers then spent the next ten years trying to find insurance coverage to pay for his injuries and lost wages.
After three different insurance companies denied coverage, his final chapter is told in a recent South Dakota Supreme Court case, entitled, James E. Cornelius v. National Casualty Company, 2012 S.D. 29.

James Cornelius worked for a company that provided construction and maintenance services to power companies. James started as a groundsman, where his duties involved changing out electrical poles (from the ground).

Later, he was promoted to linesman, spending his days up in the “bucket” of a 1963 International boom truck. James’s job involved work on energized lines using insulated gloves, hand tools, and a pneumatic wrench.

On March 11, 2002, James was in the bucket of his truck near Wright, Wyoming (about 80 miles straight west of Custer).

He was finishing up the work on a power pole with three energized lines.   He had just removed his insulated gloves to tighten the hardware on the neutral connector when his head brushed against one of the live lines.  

The electric current entered his body near his left ear, traveled down both arms to the bucket, and then to the ground (allegedly due to faulty insulators).  

James sustained serious injuries to his right arm, as well as burns to his face and damage to his eye. After several amputations and fourteen months of recuperation, a doctor determined his body was 54% impaired.

With the help of an attorney, James began looking for insurance coverage for his injuries and lost wages. First, the Supreme Court of Wyoming determined that he was not an “employee” of the power company, and therefore was ineligible for its worker’s compensation coverage.

Next, he attempted to obtain coverage through the maintenance company’s general commercial policy. A federal court in Rapid City ruled that an exclusion prevented his claim. Strike two.

In a third attempt, James then sought coverage under the automobile policy issued to his employer (the one that covered the boom truck). At the trial court level, the judge reviewed the policy and the facts and determined that no coverage was available here, either. Strike three.

James then appealed that decision to our state Supreme Court.

Uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage is the best insurance that money can buy. UM/UIM coverage is essentially “insurance of last resort.” When all other coverage is unavailable (or isn’t enough), UM/UIM coverage steps in to save the day.

By statute, every auto policy is required to contain a basic level of coverage that kicks in if the car you’re driving in is hit by another driver with no insurance (or too little).

However, some insurance policies go farther than this and provide coverage for single car accidents and other situations where the car isn’t even moving.

Every policy and every case is different, though. For example, in a prior case, the Court denied coverage to a man who died from carbon monoxide poisoning while sleeping in his motorhome. There, the Court determined that the motorhome was not covered because it was being used as a “dwelling” at the time of the injury, rather than as a motor vehicle.

In James’s case, the insurance company pointed to that case and argued that the boom truck wasn’t being used for “transportation purposes” at the time of the accident.

The Court rejected that argument because the policy expressly allowed coverage for “cherry pickers and similar devices… used to raise and lower workers.”

Thus, after ten long years, James finally found coverage to pay for his injuries and lost wages.
The moral of the story is the importance of choosing a lawyer who understands insurance and who has the patience and tenacity to keep fighting to find as much coverage as possible. Too often, lawyers take cases and settle them with the first policy they find. This results in a quick buck, but not in the best possible result.

Every time an injured client comes into our office, I tell them to check the UM/UIM coverage on their own policy, in order to plan for “next time”. I tell them, also, that bumping up the level of coverage is relatively cheap, and I encourage them to visit with their insurance agent about it.
Sometimes this advice falls on deaf ears. However, one of my clients last month called her insurance agent the same day, and found out that for $2.00 per year, she could raise her level of UM/UIM coverage from $100,000 to $300,000.

At a minimum, that’s what I recommend you do, too. If you’re able, look into getting $500,000 or $1 million or more.

About the author

I'm a South Dakota trial lawyer, raised on a hog farm near Lennox. My cases tend to involve corporate wrongdoing (such as insurance companies that lie or deny claims, or both). science (such as whether someone had the mental capacity to execute a Will or Trust), or technical aspects (like construction litigation). I also regularly sue public entities that refuse to pay their fair share. I studied international relations as an undergrad at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and then graduated second in my law school class at the University of South Dakota. I'm an avid runner and a "family-taught" carpenter (i.e., I learned most of what I know from Grandpa, Dad, and my brother Steve). And I'm a kid at heart, with a love for model trains and my children's Legos. Beyond the practice of law, my most passionate endeavor is The Finish Line Fund. We founded this non-profit in 2017 in order to raise funds and expand research for rare diseases, including Friedreich’s Ataxia, which affects my 17-year-old daughter. You can learn more (and give) at TheFinishLine.org