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Appellate court rules in favor of man’s estate on uninsured motorist claim

July 31, 2017

The Elkhart Superior Court properly found a Goshen man’s estate was entitled to recover under the uninsured motorist policy held by his employer, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Monday. The court interpreted the ambiguous language of the policy in favor of the estate.

While cutting the grass at his Goshen home in August 2010, Brian L. Harris was struck and killed by Noel M. Sparks, who was driving a 1974 Chevrolet truck he had borrowed from Brent and Jamie Stouder. At the time of the accident, Sparks was driving on a suspended license, so he was deemed to be an uninsured motorist.

Prior to his death, Harris worked for Formco Inc., which allowed him to drive a company-owned 2004 Toyota pickup truck as his primary business and personal transportation. In December 1993, Erie Indemnity Company and Erie Insurance Exchange issued a commercial auto policy to Formco naming the company as the sole “Named Insured.”

The policy contained an Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage Endorsement that supplied coverage limits of $1 million per accident and listed Harris’ Toyota as one of Formco’s scheduled vehicles. However, Harris was never a named insured under the policy, but instead was listed as a “scheduled driver.”

After his death, Harris’ estate submitted a claim to Erie for damages for bodily injury under the policy’s UM coverage. Erie denied the claim, asserting Harris did not meet the definition as a named insured “you” as defined by the policy and that he was not using or occupying a vehicle insured by the policy at the time of his death.

Harris’ estate then filed a complaint for damages and declaratory judgment in the Elkhart Superior Court, alleging negligent operation of a motor vehicle by Sparks and negligent entrustment by the Stouders and seeking declaratory judgment as to whether the UM coverage covered the damages suffered by Harris’ estate. Erie filed a counterclaim and a motion for summary judgment on the declaratory judgment count, but the trial court granted the estate’s cross-motion for summary judgment.

Specifically, the trial court determined the estate was entitled to recover under the UM coverage, thought it did not address the damages issue. The parties later stipulated “as to the damage issues,” and Erie then appealed in Erie Indemnity Company, as the Attorney-In-Fact for the Subscribers at Erie Insurance Exchange v. The Estate of Brian L. Harris, By Its Special Representative Laura Harris, and Anna Marie Harris, Spouse of Brian L. Harris, Deceased, 46A03-1606-CT-1261.

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed, with Judge James Kirsch writing Monday that the UM policy states it applies to bodily injury to “you or others we protect,” an ambiguous phrase under the language of the policy, Kirsch wrote. Specifically, the phrase “others we protect” is not expressly defined in the policy, nor was it listed in bold as other phrases were to indicate a special meaning, Kirsch noted.

Thus, without a specific definition, Harris falls within the class of “others we protect,” so the estate can recover UM damages in its wrongful death suit. Additionally, the policy can also apply to Harris as a pedestrian, the court held.
 

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