Thursday, July 5, 2018

Passenger Grabbing Steering Wheel Does Not Amount to Lawful Possession of Vehicle

In the case of State Farm Automobile Insurance Company vs. Dooner, 2018 Pa. Super. 146 (Pa. Super. June 4, 2018 Bender, P.J.E., Lazarus, J., Kunselman, J.) (Op. by Bender, P.J.E.), the court affirmed a trial court’s granting of summary judgment in favor of a passenger’s automobile insurance carrier on a coverage question where the passenger grabbed the steering wheel from the driver and caused the car to crash.

According to the Opinion, the insured was a passenger in a friend’s vehicle when a fight broke out and the insured jerked the steering wheel, causing the car to hit an oncoming police cruiser.   The driver of the vehicle and the police officer sued the friend for the accident.  

The friend’s automobile insurance carrier filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that it had no duty to defend, indemnify, or otherwise provide liability coverage to the friend under her insurance policy.   As noted, the trial court granted the carrier’s Motion for Summary Judgment, finding that the carrier owed no duty of coverage.  

The court noted that, under the friend’s automobile insurance policy, coverage was provided for a “non-owned” car if the car was “lawful in the possession of you or any resident relative.”  

The injured parties asserted that the policy did not define “possession” or “lawful,” and was, therefore, ambiguous such that the policy had to be construed in favor of the insured and/or the injured party.  

The trial court had found that the friend’s grabbing of the steering wheel from the passenger seat did not amount to a taking of lawful possession or control of the vehicle.  On appeal, the appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s finding in this regard.  

The appellate court also noted that, even if the friend had been in “possession” of the vehicle when she grabbed the steering wheel, such possession would not have been “lawful.”  

In this regard, the court agreed with a decision from another state in which it was held that a passenger who grabbed a steering wheel was actually interfering with the vehicle’s operation and such action did not constitute “possession” of the vehicle.  

Anyone wishing to review a copy of this decision may click this LINK .

Source:  “Court Summaries” by Timothy L. Clawges, Pennsylvania Bar News (July 2, 2018).

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