How Insurance Policies May Be Interpreted in Trucking Accident Cases

Posted in truck accident on December 28, 2020

A recent lawsuit in Georgia federal district court examined a commercial automobile insurance policy issued by Progressive to one of the defendants in a wrongful death case. Exactly who and what vehicle was covered under the policy was the question presented to the court.

In December 2016, a Mack truck (the “Tractor”) collided with another vehicle, killing one person. At the time of the accident, the driver was an employee of Tru Blu Trucking and/or Defendant B&N Trucking. The semi tractor was owned by Tru Blu Trucking.

After the accident, the administrator of the victim’s estate filed a personal injury action in the Georgia State Court in Chatham County seeking wrongful death damages and survival damages against a number of defendants, such as the driver of the semi, the trucking company, the owner of the trailer, and others. Although Progressive wasn’t involved in the state court action, at the time of the accident, Numbers Enterprise (one of the defendants) was insured under a commercial auto policy issued by Progressive.

Is the Tractor is an “Insured Auto” Under The Policy?

To resolve any uncertainty about insurance coverage under the policy, Progressive brought a declaratory judgment action, which is a court-issued judgment that definitively states the rights and obligations of each party in a contract.

Here, Progressive wanted a declaration from the court that said it wasn’t responsible for and didn’t owe any defense or indemnity for claims arising from the accident because the Tractor wasn’t a covered vehicle under the terms of the policy. Progressive wanted to have the case dismissed on those grounds

United States District Judge William T. Moore, Jr. wrote that according to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), “[a] party may move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense—or the part of each claim of defense—on which summary judgment is sought.” Such a motion must be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

Summary judgment is appropriate when the nonmoving party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party’s case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” In effect, the moving party must show the court that the other side has no case. Then, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish that there’s a genuine issue concerning facts material to its case.

The Court must review the evidence and all reasonable factual inferences arising from it in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.

However, as the U.S. Supreme Court has said, the nonmoving party “must do more than simply show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” A mere “scintilla” of evidence, or simply conclusory allegations, won’t cut it, the Supreme Court has held. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held that where a reasonable fact finder may “draw more than one inference from the facts, and that inference creates a genuine issue of material fact, then the Court should refuse to grant summary judgment.”

In this case, Progressive asked the Court to enter summary judgment against the estate administrator on Progressive’s claim for declaratory judgment. Again, Progressive sought a declaration from the court that its policy didn’t cover anyone involved in the accident.

Progressive Argued the Semi Wasn’t Specifically Described in the Policy

Progressive reasoned that the policy was a “scheduled auto” policy. In this type of policy, the coverage is tied to a specific vehicle that’s described in the contract or that auto’s replacement or temporary substitute. Under the policy, Progressive provides liability coverage for bodily injury or property damage that an “insured” becomes legally responsible to pay because of an accident arising from the use of an “insured auto.”

The Progressive’s insurance policy limited liability coverage to accidents involving the following:

  • Autos specifically described on the declarations page of the policy;
  • After-acquired autos;
  • Replacement autos; and
  • Temporary substitute autos.

Progressive claimed that the Tractor wasn’t an “insured auto” because the Tractor wasn’t specifically described on the declarations page to the policy. Plus, the insurer contended that the Tractor didn’t constitute an after-acquired auto, replacement auto, or temporary substitute auto under the policy.

Because the Tractor wasn’t an “insured auto” under the policy, Progressive argued that it had no duty to defend or indemnify any individual or entity in relation to claims, lawsuits, or actions arising from or relating to the accident—including the estate administrator’s action.

How Does Georgia Interpret Insurance Policies?

Judge Moore was satisfied that Progressive had proved the absence of any genuine issue of material fact that it didn’t have a duty to defend or indemnify any party in connection with the accident. The judge said that first, it was undisputed that Georgia’s law of contract interpretation applied in this case.

The judge explained in his opinion that Georgia follows the lex loci contractus rule. This rule states that agreements are to be governed as to their nature, validity and interpretation by the law of the place where they were made.

Under Georgia’s rules of contract interpretation, Judge Moore said that where “the terms and conditions of an insurance contract are clear and unambiguous, they must be given their literal meaning.”

The judge went on to find that the unambiguous terms of the policy excluded coverage on the semi tractor-trailer in this case. The Tractor’s VIN number wasn’t set out on the declarations page of the policy, and the estate administrator failed to show that the Tractor was an after-acquired auto, replacement auto, or a temporary substitute auto as defined under the Progressive insurance policy.

As a result, Progressive’s motion for summary judgment was granted. Progressive Mt. Ins. Co. v. No. Enter., LLC, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 235635 (S.D. Ga. December 15, 2020).

Takeaway

In this case, because the Tractor wasn’t an “insured auto” under the policy, Progressive wasn’t obligated to defend or indemnify any individual or entity involved in the accident.

If you have questions about insurance policy interpretation and whether a trucking company may be liable for your accident, contact experienced Atlanta truck accident lawyers at Tobin Injury Law.