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Lawful Possession Not Found For Passenger in Vehicle (PA)

June 7, 2018

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In <a href="http://blog.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/State-Farm-Mutual-Automobile-Ins.-Co.-v.-Erin-C.-Dooner-Jean-A.-Fonte-Jeffrey-J.-Kowalski-Gary-J.-Fedorczyk-and-Progressive-Advanced-Ins.-Co.pdf">State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Erin C. Dooner, Jean A. Fonte, Jeffrey J. Kowalski, Gary J. Fedorczyk, and Progressive Advanced Ins. Co</a><em>.</em>, the Superior Court reaffirmed a trial court decision that determined the Appellee, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”), did not owe coverage to its insured, Erin C. Dooner (“Dooner”).
In the underlying case to this declaratory judgment action, the appellant, Jean. A Fonte (“Fonte”), and Dooner were traveling in Dooner’s car when they were involved in a one-car accident.  At the time of the accident, Dooner had a motor vehicle insurance policy through State Farm.  Due to the accident, Dooner was arrested so Fonte retrieved her own vehicle to pick up Dooner at the police station.  On the way home, a fight arose at which time Dooner grabbed the bottom of the steering wheel causing Fonte’s car to swerve into oncoming traffic and collide with a police cruiser.  The police officer and his wife then sued Dooner.  Subsequently, State Farm initiated this action seeking a declaration that it had no duty to defend, indemnify, or otherwise provide liability coverage to Dooner.  The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm.
The following issue was raised for review: “Did the trial court abuse its discretion and commit error by granting [s]ummary [j]udgment on behalf of [State Farm], improperly determining that State Farm did not owe a duty of coverage to [its] insured[,] [Ms.] Dooner, and all parties who suffered injuries through [Ms.] Dooner’s negligence, thus misapplying case law and relevant precedent?
The insurance policy in question was a motor vehicle insurance policy that provided coverage for a “non-owned car” if the car was “in lawful possession of you or any resident relative.”  As the policy did not define the terms “possession” and “lawful,” Fonte argued, on appeal, that the policy was ambiguous and should have been construed in her favor.
In compliance with Pennsylvania law, the Superior Court evaluated the type of coverage afforded under the policy by analyzing the policy’s language.   To determine whether the policy language was ambiguous, the Superior Court relied on Pennsylvania’s long-standing principles regarding insurance policy interpretation.  As noted by the Superior Court, policy language is only ambiguous if it is susceptible to more than one meaning.  Policy language is not ambiguous merely because the parties disagree as to the meaning of the policy’s language.  Accordingly, policy language must be construed in its plain and ordinary sense and read to avoid any ambiguity.  Therefore, the Superior Court determined that if the policy’s language is “plain and unambiguous,” then it is bound by the policy’s language.
As the Superior Court found the policy’s language to be clear, it determined State Farm <em>only</em> owed liability coverage to Fonte if Fonte’s car qualified as a “non-owned car” of the insured [Donner].  Further, the policy only provided coverage if the insured [Donner] was in “lawful possession” of Fonte’s car at the time of the accident.
On appeal, Fonte argued “possession” involved an aspect of control, however, the Superior Court disagreed with Fonte’s analysis because under Pennsylvania law “control” did not necessarily equate to “possession.”  Nevertheless, since the policy in question was a motor vehicle insurance policy, the Superior Court evaluated whether the insured was in “possession” by considering who was in “control” in terms of the entire vehicle.    In doing so, the Superior Court focused on the fact that Fonte was in the driver’s seat at the time of the accident.  Even though Dooner grabbed the bottom of the steering wheel and ultimately caused the accident, the Superior Court determined that based on the totality of the circumstances the insured’s briefly grabbing the steering wheel did not amount to her taking lawful possession or control of the vehicle.
Simply, Dooner’s actions in grabbing the steering wheel merely constituted an interference with Fonte’s operation of the vehicle.  Accordingly, the Superior Court reaffirmed the trial court decision and held that because Fonte failed to establish a genuine issue of material fact, the trial court did not commit an error of law or abuse its discretion.
Thanks to Lauren Brenbaum for her contribution to this post.  Please write to <a href="mailto:%20vpinto@wcmlaw.com">Tony Pinto</a> for more information.

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