Court Refuses to Strain to Find Ambiguity That Did Not Exist
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In ERIE INSURANCE EXCHANGE v. DRAGANA PETROVIC, No. 1-21-0628, 2022 IL App (1st) 210628-U, Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division (November 15, 2022) the circuit court properly granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer declaring that it had no duty to indemnify or defend the insureds because the underlying accident occurred while the insured was operating his personal vehicle during the scope of employment, triggering the “auto exclusion” provision of the policy.
Erie Insurance Exchange (Erie) sued the defendants, Aral Construction Company (Aral) and Arunas Alasevicius (Alasevicius) and Dragana Petrovic (Petrovic), seeking a declaration that Erie was not obligated to defend or indemnify Aral or Alasevicius in the underlying negligence claim brought by Petrovic.
In that underlying negligence claim, Petrovic alleged a truck driven by Alasevicius struck her open car door as she was exiting her parked car and knocked her unconscious. Petrovic further alleged that Aral owned or operated the truck that struck her and that Alasevicius was acting in the scope of his employment with Aral at the time of the accident. Both Aral and Alasevicius were insured under a commercial general liability policy with Erie (the insurance policy) at that time.
Erie claimed that: (1) Alasevicius failed to provide it with proper notice of the accident; and (2) that coverage was barred under the “auto exclusion” provision of the insurance policy. After discovery, Petrovic and Erie filed cross-motions for summary judgment seeking a declaration regarding Erie’s duty to defend Aral and Alasevicius. The circuit court entered judgment in favor of Erie and against Petrovic.
The motor vehicle accident at the heart of the underlying negligence claim occurred on October 25, 2017 in Chicago. Alasevicius was driving a truck when he struck the open car door of Petrovic’s parked car, as she was attempting to exit it, rendering Petrovic unconscious. Alasevicius stopped the truck and exited, but when Petrovic regained consciousness, he left.
Petrovic sued Alasevicius for negligence. Specifically, the amended complaint alleged that Petrovic suffered a closed head injury with brain damage including numerous side effects, such as vision impairment and headaches. Petrovic incurred $300,000 in medical bills, $75,000 in lost income, and $2085.80 in damage to her car.
At the time of the accident, while Aral was insured under the insurance policy with Erie, the Erie policy titled “Fivestar Contractors Policy” is a commercial general liability policy and was issued to Aral with a limit of $1 million. The policy provides liability coverage for bodily injury and property damage arising from Aral’s business
With respect to the scope of coverage the policy contains numerous exemptions including, relevant to this appeal, the “auto exclusion” provision, which states that the insurance does not apply to:
‘Bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any *** ‘auto’ *** owned or operated by or rented or loaned to any insured. Use includes operation and ‘loading and unloading.’
This provision further provides:
This exclusion applies even if the claims against any insured allege negligence or other wrongdoing in the supervision, hiring, employment, training or monitoring of others by that insured, if the ‘occurrence’ which caused the ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ involved the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any *** ‘auto’ *** that is owned or operated by or rented or loaned to any insured.
The insurance policy further contains numerous conditions. Relevant to this appeal, the condition titled “Duties in the Event of Occurrence, Offense, Claim or Suit” requires the insured to notify Erie “as soon as practicable of any ‘occurrence’ or an offense which may result in a claim.” Nearly two years after the accident, on September 10, 2019, Alasevicius notified Erie of the accident and the underlying lawsuit. A month later, on October 21, 2019, Erie sued for declaratory judgement seeking a declaration that it was not required to defend or indemnify Alasevicius or Aral under the insurance policy. Only Petrovic participated in the declaratory judgment action.
To ascertain the meaning of the policy, the court must construe the policy as a whole, as well as consider the risks undertaken, the subject matter that is insured, and the purpose of the entire contract. Where the words used in the policy, given their plain and ordinary meaning, are unambiguous, they must be applied as written. However, if the words in the policy are susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation, they will be considered ambiguous and will be strictly construed in favor of the insured and against the insurer who drafted the policy.
To determine whether an insurer has a duty to defend an action against the insured, a reviewing court must compare the allegations of the underlying complaint to the relevant portions of the insurance policy.
An insurer may refuse to defend when the underlying complaint considered in light of the entire insurance policy, precludes the possibility of coverage.
In the present case, after reviewing the “auto exclusion” provision in the insurance policy and comparing it with the allegations in Petrovic’s amended complaint and the pleadings and exhibits offered by the parties the Court of Appeal found that Petrovic failed to state facts which either actually or potentially bring the case within the policy’s coverage.
The insurance policy to Aral is a commercial general liability policy, which contains an “auto exclusion” provision, explicitly precluding coverage for “bodily injury” or “property damage”” arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any ***’ auto’ *** owned or operated by *** any insured.”
Petrovic’s amended complaint seeks recovery for bodily injury and property damage “arising out of” “ownership” and “use” of an “auto” “owned and operated” by an insured, namely Alasevicius. Accordingly, comparing the plain language of the “auto exclusion” provision to Petrovic’s amended complaint and the evidence offered by Alasevicius’ deposition, there can be no dispute that the accident alleged in the underlying complaint arose from the “use” or “operation” of an “auto” “owned and operated” by an insured, namely Alasevicius, so as to bar coverage and absolve Erie from defending Aral and Alasevicius in the underlying lawsuit.
Petrovic made numerous judicial admissions that under the insurance policy Alasevicius could be both an executive officer and an employee, and that at the time of the accident he was in fact performing work as an ordinary employee of Aral, so as to trigger the “auto exclusion” provision. A judicial admission is a deliberate, clear, unequivocal statement by a party concerning a concrete fact within that party’s knowledge.
Since by Petrovic’s own admissions Alasevicius was acting as Aral’s “employee” at the time of the accident, he was an “insured” under the policy and the “auto exclusion” provision applied to bar coverage of the accident.
By its plain and ordinary terms, the “auto exclusion” provision applies to “any insured,” and therefore to both Aral’s “executive officers” and “employees.”
Petrovic’s interpretation of the insurance policy. to the contrary, would lead to an absurd result.
In the present case, Petrovic’s interpretation of the policy language is neither reasonable, nor supported by legal authority. Under these circumstances, the court refused to strain to find an ambiguity where none exists.
The Illinois Court of Appeals acted as required and interpreted the CGL as written. Petrovic was seriously injured by Erie’s insured and if the coverage applied would have responded as, I can only assume, the auto insurer paid the limits of its policy. Erie was the target of Petrovic because she needed some way to gain damages for her serious injury. Not everyone is insured for all risks faced by the person insured. No matter how deserving Ms. Petrovic was; no matter how serious her injury; the court could not create insurance coverage that did not exist. No insurance policy covers every risk of loss.
(c) 2022 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 54 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and email@example.com.
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