Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Clarifying Opinion Out of Venango County on Inter-Policy Stacking in UIM Cases

Judge Robert L. Boyer of the Venango County Court of Common Pleas recently issued an April 24, 2010 Opinion and Order in the case of Heller v. State Farm, No. 408-2008 (Venango Co. 2010 Boyer, J.) that serves to clarify certain issues involving inter-policy stacking in UIM cases. The decision also provides an excellent explanation the interplay of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decisions on the issue in the Craley and Generette decisions, a topic that still hurts when I try to wrap my head around it.

As explained by Judge Boyer, intra-policy stacking involves one automobile insurance policy that covers multiple vehicles. An insured can pay a higher premium to purchase the stacking option, which enables the insured to increase the amount of coverage that he or she can receive in the event of an accident by totaling the UIM coverage for each vehicle on the policy.

For example, in the Heller case, the injured party had a stacked policy with Erie on three vehicles. The policy provided for $15,000 in UIM coverage. Since there were three vehicles under this one policy and since stacking was purchased, the injured party had $45,000 in UIM benefits potentially recoverable in the event of an accident.

The Heller court noted that, in Craley v. State Farm, 895 A.2d 530 (Pa. 2006), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized another form of stacking which came to be known as inter-policy stacking. Inter-policy stacking occurs when a single insurance company has issued multiple policies covering separate vehicles in a household.

To illustrate, Craley involved a claimant who was killed in an auto accident. The Claimant's husband attempted to recover both under a State Farm policy that had been issued to the deceased claimant on one vehicle in the household as well as under a separate policy that had been issued by State Farm to the husband on his separate vehicle.

The decision in Craley had to do with the fact that both of the State Farm policies included a waiver of the stacking option executed by the insureds. In addition to recognizing the concept of inter-policy stacking, the Craley court also held that the waiver of stacking was valid in both intra-policy and inter-policy situations. It was therefore determined in Craley that, since stacked coverage was waived, a UIM recovery was only available under the decedent's insurance policy and not the husband's separate policy with the same carrier.

In the Heller case before Judge Boyer, the injured party had a State Farm policy that provided for non-stacked UIM coverage of $100,000. The Plaintiff also had a separate policy with Erie Insurance covering three vehicles with stacking UIM coverage of $15,000, i.e. a total of $45,000 in benefits available.

Erie tendered its $45,000 in UIM benefits to the injured party. State Farm then attempted to limit its exposure pursuant to its "Other Insurance" clause, which provided that, where the injured party had UIM coverage available from more than one policy, regardless of whether the other policies were provided by State Farm or another carrier, the injured party would be limited to the amount of the highest UIM policy limit among all of the available insurance policies.

Since the highest UIM policy limit at issue in Heller was the $100,000 limits in the State Farm policy, State Farm believed that, pursuant to its "Other Insurance" clause, it was correct in only having to pay another $55,000 above the $45,000 paid by Erie (i.e. $45K + $55K = the $100K highest policy limit).

Judge Boyer agreed with State Farm in Heller and, in doing so distinguished the plaintiff's strong reliance upon the case of Generette v. Donegal, 957 A.2d 1180 (Pa. 2008).

In Generette, the claimant was injured while riding as a guest passenger in a vehicle. The injured party recovered under the liability policy that covered the tortfeasor's policy and also obtained a tendering of the Nationwide $50,000 UIM policy limits covering the vehicle in which she was located at the time of the accident.

The injured party in Generette then turned to Donegal Insurance to recover the additionally available $35,000 in UIM limits she had purchased for herself on her own separate personal vehicle. The facts of that case confirmed that the injured party had waived the stacking option under her own policy.

Like the State Farm policy in Heller, the Donegal Insurance Company policy in Generette contained an "Other Insurance" clause, which implemented the waiver of stacked UIM benefits. In Generette, Donegal Insurance refused to pay any benefits under this clause, which like the clause in the State Farm policy in Craley, provided that the UIM carrier's maximum exposure across multiple, applicable insurance policies was the highest policy limit stated in any of the policies.

Since the Nationwide Insurance policy had the highest available limits of $50,000 and since those limits were already paid by Nationwide, Donegal refused to pay any of its lesser amount of $35,000 in available UIM benefits under an application of the "Other Insurance" clause.

In Generette, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rejected Donegal Insurance's position as being in violation with the public policy of Pennsylvania. First, after a lengthy discussion of the procedural history and statutory definitions, the Generette court rejected Donegal's argument that the injured party was unable to recover on the basis that she had rejected stacking. The Court in Generette determined that Section 1738 of the Motor Vehicle Responsibility Law (MVFRL), which only expressly allows an "insured" to waive stacking, did not apply in this case because guest passengers were not "insureds" as that term is defined in the MVFRL.

After ruling that the injured party was not barred from recovering by her waiver of the stacking option, the Generette Court then turned to the question of whether Donegal's "Other Insurance" clause served to preclude a recovery.

The Court in Generette found that the "Other Insurance" clause, in this context, violated the public policy mandating that UIM coverage be excess coverage rather than gap coverage. In other words, an application of the "Other Insurance" clause in this scenario would have prevented the injured party from securing the very excess insurance coverage she had paid premiums for in the event that she was injured by a tortfeasor with inadequate insurance coverage.

As such, the Supreme Court found that, in the context of Generette, the "Other Insurance" clause violated public policy and could not be utilized by Donegal Insurance to limit the injured party's recovery.

Turning back to the case before him, Judge Boyer noted that, while the facts presented in the Heller case were similar to those in the Generette case, the simiarities did not reach the level to where Generette had to be followed as binding precedent.

Most importantly, Judge Boyer noted that, whereas in Generette the Court held that the waiver of stacking was not valid in the case of a guest passenger who did not meet the definition of an "insured," in Heller the injured party was identified by name on the subject policy and, therefore, was an "insured" under the MVFRL who could validly waive stacking.

The Heller court went on rationalize that the valid waiver of coverage was the key distinction from the Generette case. Judge Boyer ruled that, to then find State Farm's "Other Insurance" clause to be a violation against public policy in spite of a valid waiver of stacking, would require him to rewrite the MVFRL, an option he refused to undertake.

Judge Boyer concluded his Opinion by noting that, in passing the MVFRL, the Pennsylvania Legislature attempted to contain the spiraling costs of automobile insurance by adopting provisions such as the waiver of stacking statute. The Heller court ruled that, by waiving stacking, the injured party paid a lower premium to receive a maximum of $100,000 in UIM coverage under the application of the "Other Insurance" coverage. Accordingly, the court held that State Farm acted properly in only paying $55,000 out of its available $100,000 in UIM policy limits under the facts presented.


Anyone desiring a copy of this trial court opinion out of Venango County may contact me at dancummins@comcast.net.

I thank the prevailing defense attorney in the Heller case, Attorney Tom McDonnell of the Pittsburgh law firm of Summers, McDonnell, Hudock, Guthrie & Skeel, P.C. for bringing this enlightening case to my attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment