Supreme Court reverses judgment for man’s estate on uninsured driver claim

The Indiana Supreme Court reversed a trial court ruling in favor of a Goshen man’s estate seeking recovery of damages under the uninsured motorist policy held by his employer.

While mowing the yard at his home, Brian L. Harris was struck and killed by the side of the road by Noel M. Sparks, who was driving a 1974 Chevrolet truck he had borrowed. At the time of the accident, Sparks was driving on a suspended license, so he was deemed to be an uninsured motorist.

Harris was a longtime employee of Formco, Inc., which allowed him to drive a company-owned 2004 Toyota pickup truck as his primary business and personal transportation until his death in 2010.

In 1993, Erie Indemnity Company and Erie Insurance Exchange issued a commercial auto policy to Formco, which renewed the policy every year through 2010 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.”

Erie denied claims submitted by Harris’ estate upon his death for damages for bodily injury and MedPay benefits under the policy’s UM coverage. The Estate sued Erie seeking, in part, a declaratory judgment entitling it to uninsured motorist bodily injury coverage benefits for the accident that killed Harris and damages up to the policy limits.

Both the Elkhart Superior Court and Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the estate, but the Supreme Court reversed those rulings in Erie Indemnity Company, as Attorney-in-Fact for the Subscribers at Erie Insurance Exchange v. Estate of Brian L. Harris, by Its Special Representative, Laura Harris, and Anna Marie Harris, et al.,18S-CT-114, granting summary judgment to Erie.

The matter involves whether Formco’s commercial auto policy provides coverage for Harris’ death in a motor vehicle accident involving an uninsured motorist, when Harris was not occupying a scheduled vehicle. The sole question raised by the parties is to define the meaning of one term in “others we protect” in the policy’s UM endorsement.

The court found that Harris did not qualify as “others we protect” when it concluded the term was not ambiguous and susceptible to only one reasonable interpretation under the policy’s section that outlines qualified claimants.

“We hold the trial court erred in finding otherwise and in granting summary judgment to the Estate,” Justice Christopher Goff wrote in a Tuesday ruling. “We therefore reverse the trial court’s judgment and remand with instructions to enter summary judgment for Erie.”

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