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What is "Lawful Possession" of a Vehicle?


August 8, 2018 at 10:10:28 PM

The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently analyzed the circumstances under which an insured is in “possession” of a vehicle for coverage purposes.
In <a href=""><em>State Farm Automobile Ins. Co. v. Dooner</em></a>, Dooner, the passenger, grabbed the steering wheel of the vehicle, while Fonte, the driver, was driving, causing the vehicle to strike a police car. Fonte and the police officer commenced lawsuits against Dooner.  Dooner sought coverage for the lawsuits under his State Farm Policy. State Farm commenced a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that its policy did not provide coverage to Dooner for the lawsuits.  The trial court granted State Farm summary judgment.
On appeal, Fonte argued the State Farm Policy provided coverage for a “non-owned” vehicle if that vehicle was in the “lawful possession” of the insured.  Fonte argued Dooner was in possession of Fonte’s vehicle, at the time of the accident, because Dooner had grabbed the wheel of the vehicle that caused the accident.
In analyzing this argument, the court noted the State Farm Policy did not define the term “possession”.  As such, the court looked to the surrounding facts.  The court reasoned that the driver, Fonte, at all times relevant, was in the driver seat and never relinquished control of the gas or brake pedals.  Additionally, the court also noted other jurisdictions had previously held a passenger grabbing a steering wheel did not constitute possession.  Consequently, the court agreed with the trial court and held there was no coverage under the State Farm Policy because Dooner never was in “possession” of the vehicle.
Accordingly, this case offers some insight into the relevant facts a court may look to when analyzing whether an insured is in possession of a vehicle for purposes of coverage under an automobile policy.
Thanks to Colleen Hayes for her contribution to this post.

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