As a southern Illinois tractor-trailer accident lawyer, I was interested to see a recent appeals court decision stemming from a catastrophic trucking accident that took place in the region. In Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. and ACE American Insurance Co. v. ATS Enterprises et al., the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided that Coca-Cola, the owner of a truck involved in a fatal crash, and its insurance company should be held legally liable to the victims. The question arose because the truck was being driven at the time by Daniel Zacha, an employee of contractor S&S Service Co., which maintained and repaired trucks at the Coca-Cola bottling plant in Mattoon, Ill. The victim’s estate ultimately settled an Illinois wrongful death lawsuit for $1.9 million, but the companies and their insurers fought over who was liable for the payment.
S&S usually serviced the trucks at the site of the Coca-Cola plant, but sometimes had an employee drive them to its shop. Zacha was doing that when he failed to yield during a left turn, causing a fatal head-on collision with a minivan. The victim was not identified, but his or her estate sent an initial demand letter to Universal Underwriters Insurance Co., the insurer for S&S. This set off a debate between Universal and the insurer for Coca-Cola, ACE American Insurance Co., but Universal ultimately agreed to take the lead in negotiations with the estate. While it settled for $1.9 million, ACE and Coca-Cola filed suit in Illinois for a declaratory judgment that they were not liable for the amount of the judgment. The Illinois federal district court found that state law makes Coca-Cola’s policy with ACE the primary insurance, and in fact that Universal’s policy did not apply. It granted summary judgment for the Universal defendants, and the ACE defendants appealed.
The Seventh Circuit ultimately upheld the determination that ACE’s policy was primary, although it disagreed that Universal’s policy did not apply. The material facts are not disputed, it noted; it need only settle the question of which policies apply and which insurer has primacy under Illinois law. It’s undisputed that the ACE policy applies, it said. Though the policy says it excludes someone using a truck while servicing or repairing that truck, this is not permissible under Illinois law, the court said; thus, Zacha was a permissive user. The Universal policy is harder to apply because it covers only an “owned auto,” the court said, but an “owned auto” includes an auto “not owned by you… when used in your business.” This surely must apply to the circumstances of the crash, the Seventh reasoned. Thus, both policies apply. Furthermore, the court noted, Illinois law prioritizes the owner of the vehicle over its operator. ACE argued that S&S should have primacy because it is a tow-truck operator required by statute to cover accidents involving others’ vehicles, but the court rejected this as an overly broad reading of the tow-truck statute. Thus, it upheld the district court’s determination that ACE and Coca-Cola should pay.
This is a good position for a St. Louis semi truck accident attorney like me to be in, because no matter who wins, the injured family is likely to get the financial recovery it’s legally entitled to. S&S was well insured enough to pay the judgment; and while Coca-Cola had a $5 million deductible with ACE, it has deep enough pockets to make even a $5 million award affordable. Not every accident victim is lucky enough to be in this position, unfortunately. A defendant trucking company may try to cut expenses by self-insuring, then go out of business after it becomes responsible for a very serious accident. It’s also possible that defendants with the best ability to pay may be excluded, leaving no insurance or insufficient insurance left to cover catastrophic damages. That’s why, as a Missouri big rig accident lawyer, I work hard to ensure that every applicable defendant is included in my cases.
If your family has suffered serious injuries or a loss because of a trucker’s or trucking company’s negligence, don’t hesitate to call Carey, Danis & Lowe for help. You can reach us through our website or call 1-877-678-3400 today.
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