Agent Binds Principal

Rejection of UIM Cover by Agent Valid

Post 4786

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Brandon Lawrence appealed the trial court’s order finding Progressive Northern Insurance Co. (Progressive) made a valid, meaningful offer of underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage to his agent, Ashley Outlaw.

In Progressive Northern Insurance Co. v. Brandon Lawrence and Ashley Outlaw, No. 2024-UP-127, Appellate Case No. 2020-001245, Court of Appeals of South Carolina (April 17, 2024) the Court of Appeals explained the law of agency and its relationship to insurance.

FACTS

From 2008 to 2013, Lawrence and Outlaw lived together in the same house with their son; they never married. They split the household expenses, but Outlaw paid the bills and took care of any insurance needs. On August 19, 2009, Outlaw purchased an insurance policy from Progressive to cover Lawrence’s motorcycle; however, Lawrence did not discuss obtaining UIM coverage with Outlaw, nor did he read the policy, did not have any involvement in obtaining the policy, and did not have any contact with Progressive.

The application for the insurance policy was mailed to Lawrence and Outlaw. It listed Outlaw as “Married” and as an “Insured” and Lawrence as “Married” and as Outlaw’s “Spouse.” On September 5, 2009, Outlaw signed the application form and rejected Progressive’s offer of UIM coverage. Outlaw paid the premium for the policy, and Lawrence reimbursed her.

In May 2013, Lawrence was involved in a motorcycle accident. On August 12, 2016, Progressive filed a declaratory judgment action and sought a determination that UIM coverage was offered to Lawrence through his agent, Outlaw, and that Lawrence was bound by Outlaw’s rejection of UIM coverage. The trial court found Lawrence was bound by Outlaw’s rejection of UIM coverage because Lawrence appointed Outlaw as his agent to obtain the policy. Lawrence testified in his deposition and at trial that he knew Outlaw was getting insurance; that he asked her to do so; and that she had his permission to do so.

LAW, ANALYSIS, AGENCY

The Court of Appeals noted that it is well-settled that the relationship of agency between a husband and wife is governed by the same rules which apply to other agencies, and no presumption arises from the mere fact of the marital relationship that one spouse is acting as agent for the other. An agency relationship may be, and frequently is, implied or inferred from the words and conduct of the parties and the circumstances of the particular case.

Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that an agency relationship existed between Lawrence and Outlaw and that Outlaw’s rejection of UIM coverage bound Lawrence. Lawrence stated he assumed Outlaw would purchase UIM coverage, he did not discuss such optional coverage with her, read the policy, check to see if the policy included UIM coverage, or have any contact with Progressive himself. Lawrence gave Outlaw the authority to obtain the insurance policy, and he is bound by Outlaw’s rejection of UIM coverage. To hold otherwise would allow Lawrence to benefit from Outlaw’s procurement of the policy but not be bound by her rejection of UIM coverage.

MEANINGFUL OFFER OF UIM COVERAGE

Automobile insurance carriers must, by statute, “offer, at the option of the insured, underinsured motorist coverage up to the limits of the insured liability coverage . . . .” S.C. Code Ann. § 38-77-160 (2015).

Progressive’s application included the words “Underinsured Motorist Coverage” and several paragraphs that explained what such coverage entailed. Additionally, the information about UIM coverage offered by Progressive was not found in a separate form, the UIM information and rejection form was included within the main application that Outlaw received and signed.

Progressive made a meaningful offer of UIM coverage to Lawrence’s agent, Outlaw.

Progressive’s offer of UIM coverage was made through a form it sent to Lawrence by mail. Progressive’s offer of UIM coverage specifically outlined the limits. Progressive intelligibly advised Outlaw, who acted as Lawrence’s agent, of the UIM coverage.

Outlaw had experience purchasing insurance in the past by regularly handling the insurance needs of the household.

ZALMA OPINION

It’s sad that Lawrence was injured by an underinsured motorist and could not recover from his motorcycle policy because his “wife” rejected Progressive’s offer of UIM coverage as his agent for the motorcycle policy and other insurance policies for their “family.” The case ignored the fact that she lied on the application about a material fact claiming that Outlaw and Lawrence were married, when they were not. If that was a fact material to the decision of Progressive to issue the insurance it could have declared the policy void for material misrepresentation of fact or rescind the policy. Not necessary because there was no UIM cover.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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