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COA: Insurance company can't deny coverage

October 7, 2008

The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a trial court's decision that an insurance company was estopped from denying coverage to the suspected driver of a car because the company failed to properly preserve its right to deny the driver coverage.

In Founders Insurance Co. v. Virginia Olivares, Linda M. Vara, Daniel R. Farley, AAA Chicago Motor Club Insurance Co., No. 45A04-0712-CV-743, Founders appealed the trial court's declaratory judgment in favor of Virginia Olivares and other appellees, which ruled the insurance company was barred from denying coverage to Daniel Farley because he was an "excluded driver" under the car insurance policy of his mother, Linda Vara.

Vara insured a 1992 Oldsmobile Cutlass with Founders, which she co-owned with Farley, who was specifically listed under the policy as an excluded driver. Also included in the policy is liability coverage that extended to any "family member," under which coverage for Farley would fall.

Virginia Olivares was in a car accident in which the driver of the other vehicle - the Cutlass owned by Vara and Farley - was unidentified because he or she fled the scene. Farley later reported the car as stolen. Olivares believed Farley was driving the vehicle at the time and filed suit against Vara, Farley, and AAA. As a result, Founders provided defense counsel to Vara and Farley but later sent unsigned letters without Founders' letterhead to Vara and Farley saying if Farley was found to be driving the Cutlass, defense and indemnification would be withdrawn for him. The letter also misidentified Farley as David Farley instead of Daniel.

After Olivares filed an amended complaint adding a count against Founders, the company filed a counterclaim seeking declaratory judgment that it wasn't obligated to provide coverage to Farley for the accident because he wasn't insured under the policy.

Founders was estopped from raising the defense of non-coverage because it had sufficient knowledge of facts that would have permitted it to deny coverage, Founders assumed the defense of Farley without obtaining an effective reservation of rights agreement, and Farley suffered some type of harm or prejudice as a result, wrote Judge Carr Darden.

Founders claimed the unsigned letters it mailed to Vara and Farley properly preserved its right to later rely on the "excluded driver" defense, but the company provided no evidence to confirm Vara or Farley ever received the letters, wrote the judge.

And, because there was no proper reservation of rights by Founders as to the "excluded driver" defense, Farley wasn't aware at the time he accepted defense counsel from Founders that the company would later deny coverage if it found he were the driver of the Cutlass. As such, Farley couldn't make an intelligent choice between retaining his own counsel and accepting Founder's defense counsel, Judge Darden wrote.

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