Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Declaratory Judgment Action Interpreting the “Land Motorized Vehicle” Exclusion

By Kelly M. Telfeyan

In Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Co. v. Simmons, No. E2013-01419-COA-R30-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 15, 2014), the Tennessee Court of Appeals was called upon to interpret a policy of insurance to determine whether coverage existed for a fatal accident involving a four-wheeler.

In Simmons, Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Company (“Tennessee Farmers”) filed a declaratory judgment action against Judy Pauline Simmons and her daughter, Lori Beth Simmons Casey, regarding an accident that occurred on April 18, 2010. On that date, Ms. Casey was supervising as her daughter was driving Ryan Casey around her mother’s backyard on a four-wheeler. When Ms. Casey went inside the house to get a jacket, Ryan began operating the four-wheeler. Ryan apparently drove the four-wheeler into the road, where it collided with a vehicle driven by Roger Tipton. Ryan was killed in the accident.

Following the accident, Ryan’s father, Charles Casey, filed a lawsuit against Ms. Simmons, Ms. Casey, and Mr. Tipton. At the time of the accident, Ms. Simmons’ property was insured under a policy issued by Tennessee Farmers. After entering a defense on behalf of Ms. Simmons and Ms. Casey, both of whom were considered “insureds” under the subject policy, Tennessee Farmers filed a declaratory judgment action, seeking a declaration as to the rights and legal relationships of the parties pursuant to the policy and, more specifically, whether the accident and the lawsuit were covered by the policy. Charles Casey was allowed to intervene in the declaratory judgment action.

Following a hearing, the trial court entered a declaratory judgment, declaring that the policy provided no coverage with respect to the subject accident or the subsequent lawsuit. Charles Casey appealed the trial court’s ruling, asserting that the trial court erred in granting a declaratory judgment in favor of Tennessee Farmers. Specifically, Mr. Casey argued that when the accident occurred the four-wheeler was partly in the road and partly on the insured premises and that the policy was ambiguous because the definition of “land motorized vehicle” did not address that factual scenario.

As relevant to the issue on appeal, the subject policy of insurance expressly provided that coverage was excluded for bodily injury arising out of ownership, maintenance, operation, use, loading, or unloading of any “land motorized vehicle.” The policy defined a “land motorized vehicle,” in pertinent part, as “a motorized transportation device designed solely or in part for recreational activities while off the insured premises, including golf carts, snowmobiles, dune buggies, and all-terrain or utility vehicles…” or, alternatively, as “a motorcycle, motorized bicycle, tricycle, three-wheeler, four-wheeler, or similar type of equipment owned by an insured while off the insured premises…” (Emphasis added).

On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court properly interpreted the policy language as requiring the four-wheeler to be off the insured premises in order to be considered a “land motorized vehicle.” In so holding, the Court of Appeals held that the policy’s definition of “land motorized vehicle” clearly required that the vehicle be “off the insured premises,” thereby supporting the interpretation that the vehicle must be completely off the insured premises at the time of the accident in order to be considered a “land motorized vehicle.”

Finding that there was no proof in the record that the four-wheeler was partially in the road and partially on the insured property when the accident occurred but rather that the four-wheeler was in the road when the accident occurred, the Court of Appeals concluded that the four-wheeler fit within the definition of a “land motorized vehicle” pursuant to the clear policy language. Because the policy excluded from coverage accidents occurring during the use of a “land motorized vehicle,” the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court properly interpreted the policy language and did not err in determining that no insurance coverage existed.