Superior Court – Underinsured Motorist Benefits – Liability Coverage Limits

In Papantonakis et al v. Vega et al, defendant Geico General Insurance Company (“Geico”) insured the plaintiffs’ vehicle for Underinsured Motorist (“UIM”) coverage with limits of $25,000 / $50,000 per person / accident.  Three individuals claimed personal injuries after a motor vehicle accident caused by the tortfeasor, whose vehicle was insured by State Farm Mutual Insurance Company (“State Farm”) which provided liability coverage of $25,000 / $50,000 per person / accident.  The injury claims were settled for $16,666.66 each, thereby exhausting the State Farm per accident liability limit.  Geico filed a motion for summary judgment as to the plaintiffs’ UIM claims on the basis that the plaintiff’s UIM coverage policy limits were the same as the tortfeasor’s liability coverage limits, and thus, the tortfeasor’s vehicle was not underinsured.  The plaintiffs argued that because there were three claims against the State Farm liability coverage, they were forced to settle for less than the per person policy limit of $25,000 so as to not exhaust the per accident limit of $50,000.  Relying on past Connecticut decisions that have held in favor of the UIM insurer under similar facts, the Court noted that a tortfeasor is not underinsured within the meaning of Connecticut General Statutes § 38a-336(e), unless the aggregate limits of the tortfeasor’s liability insurance coverage applicable at the time of the accident are less than the underinsured motorist coverage available to the claimant.  As prior decisions have held, the purpose of underinsured motorist coverage is neither to guarantee full compensation for a claimant’s injuries nor to ensure that the claimant will be eligible to receive the maximum payment available under any applicable policy.  Geico’s motion for summary judgment was granted.

Superior Court – Underinsured Motorist Benefits – “Owner” Undefined

In Girardi v. CSAA Affinity Ins. Co., the plaintiff was operating a vehicle and injured in a collision caused by another vehicle.  The plaintiff settled her claim with the tortfeasor’s liability insurer and exhausted the policy limit, which the plaintiff claimed was insufficient to fully compensate her for her injuries, thus giving rise to the plaintiff’s claim for Underinsured Motorist (“UIM”) coverage with CSAA Affinity Ins. Co. (“CSAA”).  CSAA filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the vehicle operated by the plaintiff during the accident, a 2018 Kia Sportage (“Kia”) was not covered under the CSAA policy.  The plaintiff agreed that if shewas an owner of the Kia, she would be excluded from UIM benefits. However, she argued that it was clear that her husband, and not she, was the owner.  The plaintiff relied on a past Appellate Court decision finding that title and registration are the clearest indicia of ownership.  The plaintiff contended that her husband retained almost all indicia of ownership, with the exception of permitting his wife to operate the car.  In an affidavit, the plaintiff explained that her husband had always been the title owner of the Kia, that he paid for and registered the vehicle, and that all property taxes were also paid by him.  In addition, it was both the plaintiff’s and her husband’s understanding that the Kia was his vehicle that the plaintiff used.  The husband was the only one authorized to sell, lease or otherwise dispose of the vehicle.  The plaintiff argued that if any ambiguity existed, then it was created by the insurance policy written by CSAA and must be resolved in her favor.  CSAA could have defined what the term “owner” meant to avoid all confusion and did not do so.  The Court found that CSAA did not meet its burden of proving that the plaintiff was an owner under the CSAA policy.  The court agreed with the plaintiff that “owner” was not defined under the policy and as such, the term was ambiguous.  As a result, the motion for summary judgment was denied.

Superior Court – Declaratory Judgment – Material Misrepresentation

In Dogolo v. Calandro et al, the plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident and filed suit against the owner and operator of the tortfeasor vehicle, as well as against Quincy Mutual Insurance Company (“Quincy Mutual”) for Underinsured Motorist (“UIM”) benefits.  Quincy Mutual impleaded Progressive Direct Insurance Company (“Progressive”), the insurer of the tortfeasor vehicle, and sought a declaratory judgment that Quincy Mutual’s exposure did not commence until Progressive’s $100,000 liability coverage limit was exhausted.  Progressive, however, argued that the defendant operator was a resident relative of his grandfather, the defendant owner and, by virtue of the owner not listing the operator as a named driver on the policy, it was a material misrepresentation which Progressive claimed entitled it to void or reform its policy up to the minimum limits required by the financial responsibility laws of Connecticut, which is $25,000 per person / per accident. Thus, Progressive took the position that it would only provide $25,000 in potential liability insurance for the benefit of the plaintiff.  Progressive and Quincy Mutual agreed to settle the case with the plaintiff Dogolo, but both insurers reserved their rights to argue responsibility for the settlement payment before the court in Quincy Mutual’s third-party complaint for declaratory relief.  The plaintiff’s case resolved for $48,000, and in light of Progressive’s concession that it was responsible for the $25,000 minimum limits, the payment of the remaining $23,000 remained in dispute.  Quincy Mutual argued that there was no material misrepresentation by the Progressive policyholder on any basis, including, as claimed by Progressive, that as a grandchild, the operator should have been named under the provision that required identification of “all children who live away from home who drive these vehicles, even occasionally.”  Quincy Mutual further argued that even if there was a material misrepresentation, the injured party in the accident, as an innocent victim, was entitled to the entire amount of the Progressive policy for liability coverage.  Progressive argued that two material misrepresentations were made; one by not including the operator as a “child” in the insurance application, and another by not qualifying him as a “resident” of the policyholder’s household.  The Court noted that neither the Progressive insurance policy application nor the policy itself included a definition of “child” or “children.”  The Court reviewed accepted definitions of “child” and found them to indicate it most commonly means a person under the age of majority, in contrast to the defendant operator who was nearly 31 years old at the time of the accident.  Moreover, the defendant operator was the policyholder’s grandchild, not his child.  Progressive argued that because the policyholder “had custody of [the operator] since he was five years old, [the operator] lived with him on occasion, and [the operator] drove his vehicle on occasion,” this was sufficient to characterize the operator as a child of the policyholder and, consequently, the policyholder’s response to his insurance application was a material misrepresentation.  The Court disagreed and observed that the policyholder could reasonably have understood the insurance application question as inquiring whether any underage person lived in his home.  The Court also undertook a detailed analysis of numerous facts relating to the operator’s presence at the home over time, and concluded he was residing outside of the policyholder’s home.  In summary, the Court concluded that nothing in the insurance application rose to the level of the material misrepresentation.  The Court entered judgment for Quincy Mutual and ordered Progressive to pay Quincy Mutual $23,000 for the portion of the settlement that should have been paid by Progressive.