It is widely accepted in Louisiana that insurance companies may limit coverage in any manner they desire, so long as the limitations do not conflict with the law or with public policy. Coverage limitations must be written into the policy and the burden to prove that a claim is excluded generally falls on the insurer. One common limitation for auto insurance policies is a driver exclusion. Louisiana law specifically authorizes insurance carriers and their customers to agree to exclude a resident of an insured’s household from coverage under a policy. LSA-R.S. 32:900(L). This arrangement allows the insured to pay a lower premium since excluding one or more drivers in the household from the policy would reduce the insurance company’s potential liability. A dispute over the effectiveness of an excluded driver provision was at the center of the recent case of Young v. McGraw.
In December of 2007, Vernon Washington took out an insurance policy for his two cars with the USAgencies Casualty Insurance Company. During the application process, Washington signed an excluded driver endorsement. The provision expressly excluded as insured drivers Aretha McGraw and her two children, Christopher McGraw and Tiffany McGraw. During the policy’s period of coverage, Aretha McGraw was involved in a car accident while driving one of Washington’s cars. The owner of the other vehicle, Jacqueline Young, filed a suit which named McGraw, Washington, and USAgencies as defendants. USAgencies filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that McGraw was an excluded driver under its policy and therefore was not covered. The trial court denied the motion and, after a trial, the court concluded that the evidence presented failed to establish that Washington and McGraw lived in the same household when the policy was issued. Therefore, McGraw could not be considered an excluded driver under the policy because the requirements of LSA-R.S. 32:900(L) were not met. The trial court awarded Young personal injury and property damages totaling $5,800. USAgencies appealed.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeal reviewed the evidence presented at the trial concerning whether McGraw was actually a member of Washington’s household at the time he took out the auto policy. McGraw testified that she and her children had lived with Washington continuously since 1998 and at the address of 1996 Joe G. Drive in Monroe since 2003. She admitted to giving the address of her parents’ house to the police officer at the accident scene, but said she “didn’t think it was a big deal” since she visits there every day and receives her mail there. Washington testified that he and McGraw had lived together at 1996 Joe G. Drive for seven years. He also explained that at the time he bought the auto policy, he informed USAgencies that McGraw was a member of his household but wanted to exclude her from coverage due to “financial constraints.” The court noted: “Our review of the record convinces us that the lower court’s finding that McGraw and Washington were not residents of the same household at the time the automobile liability policy was issued is clearly wrong.” “Consequently,” the court reasoned, “the trial court was manifestly erroneous in concluding that the policy endorsement excluding Aretha McGraw … under the policy was inapplicable and that … [she] was a covered operator of the vehicle at the time of the automobile accident.” The trial court’s judgment was, accordingly, reversed.
This case demonstrates the requirement that insurance companies carefully follow all statutory requirements, if they exist, when writing coverage limitations into policies. Post-contract reviews of the insurer’s processes may, like in this case, require a fact-intensive analysis and a clear understanding of the law’s requirements. Thus, a skilled attorney is essential for any party facing a dispute over a coverage limitation.
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