Homeowner’s Policies Do Not Cover Auto Accidents

The appellate courts in Georgia have confirmed that homeowner’s policies clearly do not provide coverage for damages arising from the use of a motor vehicle, regardless of who owned or was operating the vehicle.  Although most homeowner’s policies plainly exclude coverage for such damages, plaintiffs in recent months have attempted to argue that the exclusion should only apply when the vehicle belongs to or was being operated by an insured seeking coverage under the homeowner’s policy.  The Court of Appeals rejected this argument and the Georgia Supreme Court denied cert on the issue.

In April, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled that the motor vehicle exclusion in a homeowner’s insurance policy barred coverage for damages arising from the death of a teenager killed in a car after allegedly drinking alcohol at the insured’s house.  Sauls v. Allstate Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 326 Ga. App. 821, 757 S.E.2d 455 (2014), cert. denied Case No. S14C1093 (Sept. 22, 2014).

On the evening of February 18, 2011, the Plaintiffs’ 16-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son visited the home of a 17-year-old friend. The Plaintiffs alleged that, at the friend’s home, their daughter consumed alcohol, which the friend had obtained with the knowledge, consent, or acquiescence of his father.

Later that evening, the plaintiffs’ son, daughter, and some of their friends had left the party in a vehicle driven by the plaintiffs’ son, when he collided with a moving truck that was disabled and extending into the roadway.  Plaintiffs’ daughter was ejected from the vehicle and died from the injuries she sustained in the accident.

At the time of the accident, the friend’s father was the named insured under a homeowner’s policy issued by Allstate Property & Casualty Insurance Company.  When sued by Plaintiff for the death of his daughter, the friend’s father sought coverage under his homeowner’s policy for the claims arising from the death.

Allstate filed a declaratory judgment action, seeking a judicial declaration as to what, if any, coverage obligation it owed the friend’s father — the homeowner. Specifically, Allstate asserted that because the homeowner’s policy excluded coverage for damages arising out of the use of a motor vehicle and because the damages at issue (the death of plaintiff’s daughter) arose from a motor vehicle accident, there was no coverage under the policy. The trial court granted Allstate’s motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiffs appealed; they argued that their claims were based – not on the use of a motor vehicle – but on the conduct of Allstate’s insureds before the accident in furnishing alcoholic beverages, at their residence, to the driver and to their daughter, who were both minors.

The Georgia Court of Appeals rejected the argument.  In affirming the trial court, the Court of Appeals explained that regardless of the plaintiffs’ theory of liability, the claims would not exist but for the use of a motor vehicle and the policy excluded coverage for damages arising from the use of a motor vehicle.  As such, the court ruled that there was no coverage available under the homeowner’s policy for the plaintiffs’ cause of action.

The plaintiffs petitioned the Georgia Supreme Court for certiorari.  In their petition, plaintiffs urged the court to reverse lower courts’ decisions, claiming that the interpretation of the motor vehicle exclusion was too broad.  Plaintiffs alleged that notwithstanding the plain language of the exclusion, which states that it applies to damages arising from the use of any motor vehicle, the exclusion should be narrowly construed so to only apply to those motor vehicles over which the insured have some ownership, possession, and/or control.  In a single page order, the Supreme Court denied the petition and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

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Allocation of Underlying Settlement and UM Coverage Set-Off

Long standing Georgia law requires a claimant to exhaust the tortfeasor’s underlying liability insurance limits before looking to uninsured motorist insurance for coverage.  Daniels v. Johnson, 270 Ga. 289, 290 (1998). Additionally, Georgia public policy prohibits the recovery of punitive damages from an uninsured motorist insurer. State Farm Ins. Co. v. Weathers, 260 Ga. 123, 392 S.E.2d 1 (1990); Bonamico v. Kisella, 290 Ga.App. 211, 213, 659 S.E.2d 666 (2008); Roman v. Terrell, 195 Ga.App. 219, 219–222(2), (3), 393 S.E.2d 83 (1990).

So what is the effect on UM coverage when a claimant allocates the liability settlement payment between punitive damages and compensatory damages? According to the Georgia Supreme Court, in Carter v. Progressive Mountain Insurance Company, 2014 WL 3396496 (Ga., July 14, 2014), while allocation is not prohibited, any allocation will not increase the UM carrier’s coverages.

In Carter, the plaintiff was injured in an automobile collision with a driver allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol. Carter settled her claim with the liability carrier, pursuant to a limited liability release; but, within the terms and conditions of the release specifically allocated $29,000.00 of the $30,000.00 policy limits as payment of punitive damages and only $1,000.00 toward compensatory damages. Carter then pursued recovery of compensatory damages from her UM carrier, Progressive.

Arguing that the inclusion of such an allocation within the terms and conditions of the limited liability release effectively shifted payment of punitive damages to the UM carrier, Progressive moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. But, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed. The Supreme Court held that although Carter had exhausted the underlying liability limits, any additional recovery from her UM carrier remained subject to the statutory limitations of O.C.G.A. §§33–24–41.1(d)(2) and 33-7-11.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hines explained

Under OCGA § 33–24–41.1(d)(2), “the amount paid under a limited release shall be admissible as provided by law as evidence of the offset against the liability of an uninsured motorist carrier and as evidence of the offset against any verdict of the trier of fact.”  And, by the plain language of the statute, it is “the amount paid” that is admissible, not merely the amount attributed to compensatory damages. Further, … [u]nder O.C.G.A. § 33-7-11(b)(1)(D)(ii)(I), recovery under the UM policy will be limited to “the insured’s losses in addition to the amounts payable under any available [liability] coverages” and, “the insured’s combined recovery from the insured’s uninsured motorist coverages and the available [liability] coverages … shall not exceed the sum of all economic and noneconomic losses sustained by the insured.” (Emphasis in original.)

Id. at *3.

Finally, the Supreme Court noted that “punitive damages do not represent ‘losses’ by the insured, and regardless of any designation of such payments in the release, when the UM policy is brought into play, the combined recovery will not exceed the insured’s economic and noneconomic losses.” Id. Unfortunately, however, resolution of Carter type cases requires a jury trial to determine the amount of recoverable compensatory damages, and thus determine the amount of UM coverage available to the plaintiff.  But the message to claimants is clear: allocate the liability settlement any way you choose; the UM carrier still gets credit for every penny.

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