As a semi truck accident attorney in Missouri, I frequently encounter disputes over whether a driver was actually covered by his or her employer’s auto insurance. This becomes an issue when the driver was misbehaving at work, or using the employer’s vehicle for non-work purposes. Of course, the insurance company doesn’t want to provide the coverage it agreed to provide if it can avoid doing so, because paying damages costs money. That was the story behind State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. v. Estate of Carey, in which State Farm filed for a court order declaring it had no obligation to cover the accident that killed James Carey. Carey died when his car collided with a 20-foot truck driven by Roger Linton, who was off-duty at the time. The Maine Supreme Court ultimately found that the trial court should reconsider whether Linton was violating orders during the accident.
Linton was an independent contractor for Jonathan Jennings, who had a masonry company; State Farm insured Jennings. Linton drove company vehicles often in previous years, when he was an employee; he used them less often as an independent contractor. Jennings did not place specific restrictions on the use of the vehicles, but Linton understood that there were limits and that he was not to drive them drunk. On the day of the crash, Linton had a 20-foot company truck that was cumbersome to drive. Because he was working at a site closer to his home than the office, he requested and received permission to take the truck home after work. However, instead of going home, Linton took the truck to his girlfriend’s workplace, then a gas station, a tavern parking lot, a pond, a friend’s house and then toward another home. It was during that trip that he hit and killed Carey. His BAC at the time was 0.12%, and he was convicted on related felony charges.
The next year, State Farm filed for a declaratory judgment that it had no duty to defend Linton because he was not covered by the insurance policy State Farm sold to Jennings. After a bench trial, the court found that Linton’s use of the truck exceeded what Jennings contemplated, so Linton was not insured and State Farm received its declaratory judgment. Carey’s estate appealed.
After much analysis, the Maine Supreme Court sent the case back for a determination that may give the estate a better chance at recovery. The trial court decided the case based on the minor deviation rule, which says work vehicles are within the scope of the owner’s consent if there is no more than a minor deviation from what was permitted. However, the court said, this issue was last considered before 1988, when Maine adopted a law requiring all vehicles to carry auto insurance. In a state where all vehicles are (or should be) insured, it said, it may make sense to adopt the “initial permission” rule, which makes the owner’s insurance liable if any permission was given. However, because Maine does not require omnibus insurance coverage, the court said it would decline to adopt the initial permission rule. Instead, it refined the minor deviation rule to put the burden of proof on the insurance carrier, which must establish that explicit limitations were placed on use once permission was established. It remanded the case for consideration under this rule.
As a St. Louis trucking accident lawyer, I applaud this decision, limited though it is. For families that suffer a death like Carey’s or a serious trucking accident injury, the narrowing of the rule will make it harder for insurance companies to dodge their responsibilities. This is more than just a philosophical issue. After an accident like this, the victim has often suffered catastrophic, life-changing and very expensive injuries. However, the truck drivers themselves are private individuals without the same kinds of resources as their employers; their insurance policies also generally pay less. As a result, limiting coverage to the driver means there isn’t enough insurance to cover all the injuries he or she caused. Because this rule could make employers liable for this kind of gross negligence by their employees, it may help them think twice before they leave a dangerous heavy truck in the hands of someone with substance abuse or responsibility problems. As a southern Illinois big rig accident attorney, I hope so.
If your family has suffered a death or a serious injury because of a trucker’s or trucking company’s negligence, you should call Carey, Danis & Lowe for a free consultation. You can reach us through our website or call 1-877-678-3400.
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