Does Driving a Truck for Repair Purposes Constitute “Business Use”?

Posted in Georgia Court of Appeals,truck accidents on June 24, 2021

Does Driving a Truck for Repair Purposes Constitute “Business Use”?  Having an experienced personal injury lawyer Atlanta residents choose time and time again is critical to answering this and other accident cases.

American Southern Insurance Company (“the Insurance Company”) asked a district court for declaratory judgment seeking a determination as to whether it was responsible for providing insurance coverage for a motor vehicle accident involving its insured truck. The trial court found that at the time of the accident the tactor-trailer driven by the insured was being used for personal reasons, and thus, the insurer was responsible for coverage for the accident under its non-trucking policy. The Insurance Company appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to properly interpret the unambiguous language contained in the non-trucking policy to find that routine maintenance to the semi is a business use.

Background

Petrov Tchotrov was the owner and sole employee of SPN Trans, LLC (“SPN”). As part of its business operations, SPN owns and operates a 2003 Freightliner tractor and attached trailer, which it leased to motor carriers for hauling cargo. (Our Atlanta accident lawyers have a lot of experience with these carriers.)

In March 2016, SPN and FBM Express, Inc. (“FBM”) entered into a 12-month lease, creating a carrier-independent contractor relationship wherein SPN served as the independent contractor hauling loads for FBM, the carrier.

The lease required FBM to buy insurance coverage for any claims for when the truck was being operated for business purposes on behalf of FBM. This was done with a policy issued by Spirit Commercial Auto (“Spirit”). The lease also required SPN to obtain insurance for non-trucking liability that would cover SPN and Tchotrov when the truck was not being used for FBM business. SPN bought a commercial non-trucking liability insurance policy with the Insurance Company (the “Policy”), which had a $1,000,000 limit for any one accident or loss.

On December 23, 2016, Evan Parrish was riding his motorcycle when he was struck by Tchotrov, who was driving the semi without the trailer. Tchotrov left the scene and at first denied knowledge of the accident. But he admitted he drove the semi on the day of the accident to have it repaired at a mechanic’s house. The mechanic was going to install a new air compressor in the semi at no charge.

Insurance Asks Court to Find it Not Liable

The Insurance Company filed a petition for a declaratory judgment in April 2017, naming SPN, Tchotrov, and Parrish as respondents. In its petition, it sought a determination that any potential claims raised in connection with the accident wouldn’t be compensable under the terms of the Policy issued to SPN. After a bench trial, the trial court ruled that the Insurance Company was liable to provide coverage to SPN and Tchotrov in connection with the accident under the terms of the Policy.

On appeal, the Insurance Company argued that because Tchotrov was driving the truck to get its air compressor replaced at the time of the accident, this constituted a business use excluded from the scope of the coverage under the terms of the Policy. Moreover, the Insurance Company claimed that the trial court erred in failing to properly interpret and apply the Policy’s unambiguous language, which demanded a judgment in its favor under the laws of contract construction.

Policy is Not Ambiguous, Court of Appeals Says

Citing a 1996 case, Judge Elizabeth Gobeil of the Georgia Court of Appeals wrote that under Georgia law:

[i]t is well settled that insurance policies, even when ambiguous, are to be construed by the court, and no jury question is presented unless an ambiguity remains after application of the applicable rules of contract construction. Because insurance policies are contracts of adhesion, drawn by the legal draftsman of the insurer, they are to be construed as reasonably understood by an insured. Exceptions, limitations and exclusions to insuring agreements require a narrow construction on the theory that the insurer, having affirmatively expressed coverage through broad promises, assumes a duty to define any limitations on that coverage in clear and explicit terms.

As relevant here, the Court said that the Business Auto Coverage endorsement in the Policy provided:

[The Insurance Company] will pay all sums an “insured” legally must pay as damages because of “bodily injury” or “property damage” to which this insurance applies, caused by [an] “accident” involving the personal use of a “covered commercial auto(s)” or “trailers” owned, maintained, or used as a “covered commercial auto(s)”.

However, the Policy expressly excluded liability coverage for

[a] “covered commercial auto(s)” or “trailer(s)” when being used, or for any maintenance when under orders from or after being dispatched by any trucking company or lessee of such “covered commercial auto(s)” until you have finished the assignment including return to your initial point of dispatch or your principle [sic] place of garaging, whichever comes first.

The Insurance Company claimed that, because Tchotrov was driving the truck to get its air compressor replaced — as required to keep the truck in good working order under the terms of its lease with FBM — he was using the truck for “trucking business” at the time of the accident—not for his personal use. As a result, the insurer argued it wasn’t liable to provide coverage under the terms of the Policy and that the trial court erred by focusing on whether Tchotrov was acting “under orders” from FBM, while failing to address whether the truck was being “maintained” as it was being driven to be repaired at the time of the accident, and thus, being used “in the business of” FBM.

At trial, Tchotrov testified that the truck belonged to him, and thus “if [he found] something [ ] wrong with the tractor and the trailer, [he would] have to fix it.” He further clarified that FBM didn’t pay for the semi’s repairs, nor did FBM tell him to get the truck fixed on the date of the accident. In fact, Tchotrov hadn’t told FBM that he was taking the truck to be repaired that day. Tchotrov wasn’t hauling loads on the date of the accident, as he had hauled his last load for FBM the previous day. On the day of the accident, he drove just the truck, without the trailer attached, to have the air compressor replaced at the mechanic’s home. Tchotrov’s driver’s logs, which he was required to complete under the Federal Motor Carrier regulations (FMCRs), showed that he didn’t drive the big rig at any other time that day. He picked up the truck from the mechanic’s house the next day and drove home.

The Insurance Company responded that Tchotrov was clearly engaged in trucking business as he was on his way to get the truck repaired at the time of the accident. In support, the Insurance Company said that the driver’s daily logs indicated he was “on duty” at the time of the accident, and completed a pre-trip inspection of his truck. This was part of his typical routine before driving the truck for a carrier. Tchotrov also testified that he didn’t use the truck for personal use and that he owned another vehicle for that purpose.

The trial court rejected the Insurance Company’s arguments, and the Court of Appeals found that there was no dispute that Tchotrov was driving the truck to the home of an acquaintance to repair the truck at the time of the accident.

As noted by the trial court, and supported by Tchotrov’s testimony at trial, Tchotrov was not “under orders” from FBM to repair the truck at the time of the collision; rather he “was simply abiding by the general maintenance responsibility established within the lease itself” to maintain the truck. Further, the Insurance Company presented no evidence to show that Tchotrov was engaged in the trucking business of FBM at the time of the collision, such as picking up or dropping off a load. He testified that he drove the last load for FBM the day before the accident.

In light of this, including the terms of the Policy and Tchotrov’s testimony, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court correctly found that Tchotrov wasn’t driving the truck for business reasons on behalf of FBM at the time of the accident. As a result, the Insurance Company was liable to provide coverage under the terms of the Policy.

Did the Trial Court Err by Ignoring Applicable Federal Regulations?

The Insurance Company also contended that the trial court erred in ignoring the applicable federal regulations in considering whether transporting a commercial vehicle for maintenance qualifies as a personal activity. In support of its contention, the Insurance Company pointed to question 26 of regulation 395.8 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”), which lists examples of when the use of a commercial vehicle does not qualify as personal, including “[t]ime spent transporting [the vehicle] to a facility to have vehicle maintenance performed.”

However, Judge Gobeil found that the Insurance Company’s obligations were governed by the terms of the Policy. The terms of the Policy didn’t define whether Tchotrov’s driving the truck to his acquaintance’s house for repairs constitutes a “personal use.” In fact, the Policy didn’t define the term “personal use.” Moreover, the judge found it significant that the Policy didn’t reference the FMCSA regulations in outlining the scope of its coverage. Based on the terms of the Policy and Tchotrov’s testimony, the trial court didn’t err in finding that Tchotrov was not driving the truck for business reasons on behalf of FBM at the time of the accident.

No “Bright-Line Rule” Created

Judge Gobeil said that the Court’s holding in this case wasn’t intended to create a “bright-line rule” that driving a truck for repair purposes can never constitute a business use. Rather, based on the specific facts of the case, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court was authorized to find that Tchotrov was not driving the truck for business reasons on behalf of FBM at the time of the accident.

Thus, the judgment was affirmed. Am. S. Ins. Co. v. SPN Trans, 2021 Ga. App. LEXIS 256 (Ga. App. June 3, 2021).

Speak to an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured by a semi, you should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer who has successfully resolved similar types of cases. You should work with an experienced Atlanta truck accident attorney. Contact Tobin Injury Law, and we will work to get you the compensation you deserve. We know what to look for when suing a trucking company.

You can contact an Atlanta truck accident attorney 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or using our online contact form. Tobin Injury Law offers free consultations, and we’ll be glad to answer your questions.