CAN AN INSURANCE COMPANY USE A COVERAGE DEFENSE TO ELIMINATE ALL INSURANCE COVERAGE IN A CAR ACCIDENT?
It is not uncommon for insurance company to attempt to use a coverage defense to eliminate all insurance coverage in a car accident. Coverage defenses for car wrecks come in many different forms, but all are based on the terms of the policy. When you hear people talking about the terms of a car insurance policy, what they are talking about is the insurance contract that someone has purchased. Most of us have never actually seen or read the insurance policy that is intended to protect us from personal liability in the event that we are involved in an accident. Unfortunately, if you have been involved a car accident, the insurance company that is supposed to cover the person that caused the accident may attempt to deny coverage for that person and eliminate its responsibility to pay you for your injuries. Below is the substantive portion of a letter that I use regularly in car wreck cases where the insurer is attempting to deny all responsibility under the insurance policy based upon a coverage defense:
I am asking that you reconsider this position and that Geico tenders, at least, $25,000.00. I am unaware of Ms. ——- having any available uninsured motorist coverage. If this purported exclusion of coverage were applied in this case, it would leave Ms. —— without any resources to satisfy treatment expenses incurred as a result of this accident. As stated in Woody v. Georgia Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., this type of policy exception violates Georgia public policy to the extent that it is contradictory to Georgia’s compulsory insurance law:
At issue in this case is an automobile insurance policy issued by Georgia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company which contains a provision excluding liability coverage where the insured vehicle was knowingly used without a valid driver’s license. Although the exclusion is unambiguous and enforceable in circumstances where it does not violate public policy, we conclude the exclusion is unenforceable in this case because it would violate the public policy established by Georgia’s compulsory insurance law that innocent injured persons have access to insurance funds to satisfy their judgments. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court’s order enforcing the exclusion and granting summary judgment in favor of Georgia Farm.
It is undisputed that the driver of the insured vehicle, Scott Beck, was knowingly using the vehicle without a valid driver’s license when he struck the rear of a vehicle driven by Richard Woody. Richard Tuggle, who was a passenger in the vehicle driven by Beck, sued Beck and Woody for injuries he sustained in the accident claiming that their joint negligence caused the accident. Woody answered, denied he was negligent, and cross-claimed against Beck alleging that Beck’s negligence caused the injuries suffered by Woody in the accident. Although Woody’s vehicle had liability insurance coverage, Woody chose under OCGA § 33–7–11(a)(3) not to purchase uninsured motorist coverage.
Georgia Farm entered a defense of Beck under a reservation of rights and filed a declaratory judgment action against Beck, Woody, and Tuggle seeking a ruling that the unlicensed driver exclusion was enforceable and excluded liability coverage under the policy. In granting Georgia Farm’s motion for summary judgment, the trial court held that the exclusion was enforceable and that it did not contravene the public policy established by the compulsory insurance law. The trial court found that, even though enforcing the exclusion would leave Woody without any liability insurance funds to satisfy a judgment for his injuries, this did not contravene public policy because Woody could have purchased uninsured motorist coverage but chose not to do so.
We agree that the unlicensed driver exclusion is unambiguous and enforceable in circumstances where it does not violate public policy. Hurst v. Grange Mut. Cas. Co., 266 Ga. 712, 717, 470 S.E.2d 659 (1996); Southeastern Security Ins. Co. v. Empire Banking Co., 230 Ga.App. 755, 498 S.E.2d 282 (1998). However, the Supreme Court’s holding in Cotton States Mut. Ins. Co. v. Neese, 254 Ga. 335, 329 S.E.2d 136 (1985), compels the conclusion that to enforce the exclusion in this case against Woody would leave Woody without access to insurance funds, and that this would contravene the public policy served by the compulsory insurance law to provide access to insurance funds for innocent injured persons. Id. at 341, 329 S.E.2d 136.
Neese dealt with enforcement of a different liability coverage exclusion which applied when the insured driver was attempting to avoid apprehension or arrest, but the public policy issues are the same. While attempting to elude police in a high-speed chase, Neese ran head-on into a vehicle driven by Blalack, who was killed in the collision. Blalack had no automobile insurance. The insurer, Cotton States, denied coverage based on the exclusion. The Supreme Court examined the public policy interests that the compulsory insurance law was enacted to serve and concluded that the exclusion was directly contrary to the interest that accident victims like Blalack have access to insurance funds to satisfy their judgments. Id. at 341, 329 S.E.2d 136. Recognizing that the compulsory insurance law established a public policy that “innocent persons who are injured should have an adequate recourse for the recovery of their damages,” the Court concluded that the exclusion was unenforceable as to Blalack on grounds of public policy. (Punctuation omitted.) Id. The Court also recognized that Blalack had no automobile insurance and thus no uninsured motorist coverage, but stated, “Even if he had had liability insurance, under our law he could have chosen not to purchase uninsured motorist protection.” Id.
The trial court’s conclusion that no public policy is violated by enforcing the exclusion because Woody chose to reject uninsured motorist coverage cannot be squared with the Supreme Court’s holding in Neese. Accordingly, the grant of summary judgment in favor of Georgia Farm must be reversed.
Woody v. Georgia Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 250 Ga. App. 454, 454–56, 551 S.E.2d 836, 837–38 (2001)(citations omitted).
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