Katie Stancombe for www.theindianawyer.com
A man whose driver’s license was suspended after crashing into a home will still receive coverage now that the Indiana Court of Appeals determined his insurer’s policy did not specifically say he could be denied coverage under its entitlement exclusion.
While driving his vehicle on a suspended driver’s license in August 2015, John Weaver somehow lost control and drove straight into the home of Sunday and Bryan Vanzile. The crash caused both bodily injury and property damage, and Weaver’s Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance Company policy stated that he would be covered for both.
When the Vanziles sued Weaver for damages, Indiana Farmers filed for declaratory judgment, contending that the policy did not provide Weaver with coverage for the accident because his license was suspended at the time of the crash. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, joined by the Vanziles, then moved for summary judgment and Indiana Farmer’s responded likewise. However, a trial court granted judgment in favor of State Farm and the Vanzile.
Indiana Farmers argued to an appellate panel that Weaver was using his vehicle without a reasonable belief that he was entitled to do so because of his suspended license, which resulted in him being excluded from coverage pursuant to the entitlement exclusion of the insurance policy.
Noting that it had not yet seen a case in which entitlement exclusions pertained to the policy holder’s use of his own vehicle, the appellate court found that the policy’s term “using” was ambiguous and could therefore not be considered synonymous with the term “operating.”
“While ‘operating’ is one way of ‘using’ a vehicle, it is not the only way,” Judge Cale Bradford wrote for the court. “A person could use a vehicle for storage, to salvage spare parts from, or to display at a classic car show, none of which would require the person to operate the vehicle.
“Moreover, reasonable minds may differ as to whether ‘using’ one’s own vehicle under this exclusion is dictated upon one’s driver’s license status. Indiana Farmers could have drafted a provision that specifically excluded drivers from coverage who used the vehicle without a valid driver’s license,” Bradford continued.
The appellate court, therefore, found Weaver had a reasonable belief that he was entitled to use his vehicle pursuant to the language of the policy, concluding Indiana Farmer’s failure to add clarifying language to the policy was its own fault. Judge Elaine Brown concurred with the majority in a separate opinion, noting that Indiana Farmer’s could have drafted its policy in a way that clearly defined and used “legally using.”
FOOTNOTE: The case is Indiana Farmers Mutual Insurance Company v. John Weaver, Sunday Vanzile, Bryan Vanzile, and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, 18A-CT-2043.