Is a Passenger Able to Recover Uninsured Motorist (UM) Benefits in One-Car Auto Accident?

Posted in Car Accidents on July 8, 2021

Is a Passenger Able to Recover Uninsured Motorist (UM) Benefits in One-Car Auto Accident?

In a personal injury action, a passenger, who was the driver’s daughter, was not entitled to recover uninsured motorist (UM) benefits from the insurer because the driver was the first named insured shown in the subject policy’s declarations. Plus, uncontroverted evidence proved that the truck, the only vehicle involved in the accident, was owned by the driver, and was furnished for his regular use.

Based on the plain and unambiguous language of the policy, the driver’s truck couldn’t serve as the uninsured vehicle for purposes of triggering entitlement to UM benefits.

The Accident

Savannah Parker was the passenger in a truck driven by her father, Tyler when he lost control of the truck and crashed. Tyler died, and Savannah was injured. After the single-vehicle accident, Savannah filed a personal injury action against Tyler’s estate and served her father’s insurance company as the uninsured motorist (“UM”) carrier. The trial judge held that Savannah was entitled to UM benefits from the insurance company. However, because Tyler’s truck didn’t meet the definition of an uninsured automobile under the plain and unambiguous terms of the insurance company’s policy or under Georgia’s UM statute, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision.

The 2017 Ford F-150 truck driven by Tyler was jointly owned by he and his wife. The truck was insured under a policy that included liability coverage and uninsured motorist coverage. More specifically, the Policy provided liability coverage for bodily injury with a limit of $100,000 for each person and separate “add on” uninsured motorist coverage with a limit of $100,000 for each person. The declarations pages of the Policy listed Tyler as the first named insured.

Savannah’s attorney requested payment for her injuries under both the liability and UM provisions of the Policy. The insurance company agreed that liability coverage was available for Savannah’s bodily injury claim and tendered the policy limits of $100,000. But the insurance company denied coverage under the Policy’s uninsured motorist provision, asserting that the provision did not apply because the truck was owned by and furnished for the regular use of a named insured, Tyler, and thus didn’t meet the definition of an uninsured automobile under the Policy or Georgia’s uninsured motorist statute, OCGA § 33-7-11. The insurance company appealed.

The insurance company argued that the trial judge erred in concluding that Savannah was entitled to UM coverage under the Policy because Tyler’s truck didn’t meet the definition of an uninsured automobile under either the plain terms of the Policy or Georgia’s uninsured motorist statute.

According to the insurance company, the trial judge erroneously found that the truck could be both an insured automobile and an uninsured automobile under the same insurance policy. But this was inconsistent with the Policy, the uninsured motorist statute, and Georgia court decisions. Instead, The Court of Appeals agreed with the insurance company.

The Court of Appeals Decision

Presiding Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes wrote that “courts must employ the standard rules of contract construction to determine the meaning of the provisions of an insurance policy.” To that end, Judge Barnes wrote, “[w]e construe every insurance contract according to the entirety of its terms. When the language of a policy is unambiguous and capable of but one reasonable construction, we enforce the contract as written.” The Court of Appeals applies these rules of construction to UM policy provisions, unless there’s a conflict between the provision and the clear intent of the Georgia UM Statute. In that case, the provision is unenforceable, and the uninsured motorist statute controls.

In this case, the UM provision of the Policy expressly stated that an “[u]ninsured automobile does not include an automobile[ ] owned or leased by, furnished to or available for regular use of you or any relative.” (Emphasis supplied.) The Policy also says that “[y]ou or your means the first named insured shown in the Declarations.” As such when taken together, Judge Barnes said that these provisions make clear that an uninsured automobile doesn’t include a vehicle owned or leased by, furnished to, or available for regular use of, the first named insured under the Policy.

Here, Tyler was the first named insured shown in the Policy’s declarations, and the evidence reflected that the Ford F-150 truck, the only vehicle involved in the accident, was owned by Tyler and furnished for his regular use. Thus, based on the plain and unambiguous language of the Policy, Tyler’s truck couldn’t serve as the uninsured vehicle for purposes of triggering entitlement to UM benefits.

Moreover, given the fact that the insurance company already send Savannah a check for the limits of Policy’s liability coverage, to allow her to recover uninsured motorist benefits under the same policy would be to permit a double recovery. The trial court therefore erred in concluding that the Policy’s uninsured motorist coverage was available to Savannah.

In concluding to the contrary, the trial judge reasoned that because Savannah was a minor at the time of the accident, the truck wasn’t owned by or furnished for her regular use: she was too young to operate it. Therefore, the truck wasn’t excluded from the Policy’s definition of an “uninsured automobile” under the circumstances of the case. However, Judge Barnes and the Court of Appeal said that the trial judge’s focus on Savannah’s relationship to the vehicle was misplaced. Again, the Policy clearly said that an automobile owned or furnished for the regular use of the first named insured, i.e., Tyler, was excluded from the definition of an “uninsured automobile,” regardless of the relationship any other claimant or party might have to the vehicle.

The trial court also concluded that Savannah was entitled to UM benefits under Georgia’s uninsured motorist statute, but Judge Barnes found that the plain language of that statute doesn’t support the trial judge’s conclusion. Rather, similar to the language of the Policy, Georgia Statute § 33-7-11(b)(1)(D) provides that an “‘[u]ninsured motor vehicle’ means a motor vehicle, other than a motor vehicle owned by or furnished for the regular use of the named insured[.]” As a result, in light of the fact that the truck was owned by and furnished for Tyler’s regular use as the named insured, the truck was excluded from the statutory definition of an “uninsured motor vehicle.”

As a consequence, the Court of Appeals held that Savannah wasn’t entitled to UM benefits under the Policy or the Georgia Uninsured Motorist Statute. Therefore, the trial judge erred in deciding for Savannah. The judgment was reversed. Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Parker, 359 Ga. App. 267, 857 S.E.2d 245 (Ga. App. March 30, 2021).

Speak to an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney

If you or a loved one has been injured in an auto or truck accident, 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.

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.