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Permission Involving Use of Government Vehicle Crucial to Lawsuit

In this auto-related blog post, plaintiff Fartima Hawkins seeks to recover damages resulting from a February 5, 2008, automobile accident in Baton Rouge Louisiana. The accident occurred when Ms. Hawkins’ vehicle was broadsided by a government vehicle being driven by Sergeant Sean Fowler, a recruiter for the United States Army. Ms. Hawkins filed suit naming, among others, Sergeant Fowler and his personal liability insurer, Allstate, as defendants
After Hawkins filed suit against them, Allstate filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging that the policy issued to Fowler excluded coverage for the accident. Allstate claimed Fowler lacked permission to use the government vehicle for commuting purposes or, alternatively, because Fowler used the vehicle for his regular use insofar as he drove it back and forth from his home in Baton Rouge to his office in Covington each day. Allstate further asserted that its policy did not afford coverage under either circumstance and summary judgment was therefore appropriate.

The trial granted Allstate summary judgment reasoning that whether Mr. Fowler had implied permission or not, it either falls within the regular use exclusion because back and forth to work every day is regular use or alternatively falls within the lack of permission exclusion. Plaintiff subsequently filed a Motion for New Trial and/or Reconsideration which was denied by the trial court.

Hawkins then appealed, asserting that issues of material fact remained that prevented summary judgment in this matter. Appellate courts review summary judgments de novo using the same criteria that govern the trial court consideration of whether summary judgment is appropriate. There are two permissible views of the evidence under the facts (1) that Fowler did not have permission to use the vehicle or (2) that Fowler had permission to use it and that it was provided for his regular use. First, if Fowler did not have authority to use the vehicle, the lack of permission exclusion would apply. On the other hand, if Fowler had permission to use the vehicle, his commuting from Baton Rouge to Covington on a daily basis made the auto available or furnished for his regular use such that the regular use exclusion would apply. Under the first situation, it is uncontested that the vehicle was provided for Fowler regular’s use during recruiting visits. However the accident occurred when Fowler was driving from his work in Covington to his home in Baton Rouge. Army policy, as acknowledged by Fowler, does not allow a recruiter to drive the government vehicle to and from work and home without written permission from the battalion commander. Nevertheless, Fowler testified that with express verbal permission from his supervisor, Sergeant Thomas Putnam, he drove the vehicle back and forth from home to work every day, as was the case for all of the recruiters. Sergeant Putnam testified that he was not aware that recruiters used their vehicles to go from work to home but that it was possible that the recruiters, without his knowledge, took the government vehicles for this use. Sergeant Putnam also testified that Army protocol requires the keys from the government vehicles be kept in his desk in a lockbox but that the lockbox and the lock to his office had not been in working order for some time. Secondly, even if Mr. Fowler had the permission to use the vehicle, his commuting from Baton Rouge to Covington on a daily basis made the auto available or furnished for his regular use such that the regular use exclusion would apply.

In the plaintiff’s argument was a feasible third position: that the vehicle was not provided for Fowler personal regular use but that on at least the night of this accident, Fowler had the implied permission of the commanding officer to use the vehicle. However implied permission inferred from Sergeant Putnam failure to follow protocol would reflect implied permission for regular use not limited use.

Taking all of these arguments under consideration, the granting of summary judgment still is a difficult circumstance to navigate. Knowing your rights, and preventing a trial court from dismissing your case, are two key components to fully realize before allowing your incident to be dismissed. By hiring a qualified attorney well versed in these complexities, potential litigants can begin the slow process of recovery.