Holding Title to a Vehicle Makes You the “Owner”

“Owned Vehicle” Exclusion Applies to Title Owner

Devan Aslin (“Aslin”) appealed from the judgment of the trial court, finding that Aslin—who was involved in a motorcycle accident—”owned” the motorcycle at issue, and was therefore excluded from underinsured motorist (“UIM”) coverage under three automobile insurance policies Aslin had with Shelter Mutual Insurance Co. (“Shelter”). On appeal, Aslin claims he did not “own” the motorcycle at issue under the Shelter policies, even though the parties agree that he held title to the motorcycle.

Devan Aslin v. Shelter Mutual Insurance CoDevan Aslin v. Shelter Mutual Insurance Co., No. SD36528, Missouri Court of Appeals Southern District Division One (August 5, 2020)

FACTS

Aslin was operating a 2016 Harley Davidson motorcycle (to which he held title) when another vehicle hit him, causing an accident. Aslin filed a claim against the driver of that vehicle, and settled with her insurance company for policy limits.

Shelter issued three motor vehicle policies (the “Policies”) to Aslin, all of which included UIM coverage of $50,000 per person and $100,000 per accident, subject to designated exclusions.

Aslin filed suit against Shelter, claiming Shelter owed him UIM coverage under the Policies. The policies all contained the same exclusion for vehicles “owned” by an insured. The Policies’ relevant exclusion, as applicable here, stated: “(2) If any part of the damages resulted from bodily injury sustained while the insured was occupying a motor vehicle other than the described auto, owned by any insured, spouse, or a resident of any insured’s household.”

After both parties filed motions for summary judgment the trial court entered judgment in favor of Shelter..

In his sole point relied on, Aslin asserts the trial court erred in finding that the owned-vehicle exclusion in the Policies applied to Aslin because the definition of “own” in the Policies did not apply to him, and that he was therefore owed UIM coverage under the Policies.

ANALYSIS

Aslin argued that the trial court erred in granting judgment in favor of Shelter because Aslin did not “own” the motorcycle as defined in their policy and therefore the owned-vehicle exclusion did not apply to him.

As relevant here, the Policies define “own” as: “Own means the person referred to holds the legally recognized title to … the person in possession of the vehicle, if that person: (a) Has the right to purchase it upon performance of conditions stated in a conditional sale agreement; (b) Is a lender entitled to possession of it based on the terms of a loan secured by that vehicle, or (c) Is a lessor entitled to possession of it based on a lease agreement for that vehicle.”

As our Supreme Court indicated in Seaton v. Shelter Mut. Ins. Co., 574 S.W.3d 245 (Mo. banc 2019): “To ‘own’ a motor vehicle the person only has to hold title to it and may do so in conjunction with other owners.”  Terms within an insurance policy do not become ambiguous merely due to the presence of an exclusion. The insurance policies’ plain language indicates UIM coverage will not be provided for a relative who owns a motor vehicle. Seaton admitted Decedent was an owner of a motor vehicle. Based upon the insurance policies’ plain language, it is

Aslin failed to demonstrate that the trial court erred in finding that Aslin owned the motorcycle at issue, and was therefore excluded from UIM coverage under the Policies.

ZALMA OPINION

The appellate court had no choice but to rule in favor of the insurer since its Supreme Court held that a person who holds title to a vehicle owns it. Aslin stipulated that he held title to the Harley at the time of the accident. He was, therefore, the owner and the clear and unambiguous exclusion applied.


© 2020 – Barry Zalma

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 also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 52 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and zalma@zalma.com.

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