Insurance policies are a part of many personal injury cases, and Insurance companies are a common courtroom foe for any West Virginia automobile accident attorney. Because insurance comes into play in so many cases, it is extremely important to accurately evaluate any applicable policy terms at the outset of the case, so that you can know with certainty where the difficulties may lie. The Wolfe Law Firm has helped many clients deal with insurance claims in the past, and our attorneys have found a recent decision that has been handed down by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia that may have great impact on cases involving insurance claims going forward.
In Witt v. Sutton, plaintiff Witt was an employee of the South Charleston Sanitary Board, and was driving a truck owned by his employer while performing his job duties when he was struck from behind by Defendant Sutton. Plaintiff sustained several severe injuries in the accident, and afterwards filed a negligence lawsuit against Sutton. In this suit Plaintiff sought damages from his employer’s underinsured motorist insurance carrier and his personal automobile insurance carrier as well because they had denied him coverage for his injuries and allegedly violated West Virginia’s Unfair Trade Practices Act in doing so. Plaintiff eventually settled with Sutton and his employer’s insurance company, but the claims against his personal automobile insurer remained. The policy Plaintiff purchased from that Defendant included $10,000 worth of no-fault medical payments coverage, and Plaintiff filed a claim on the policy to pay his medical bills for injuries sustained in the accident with Sutton. Plaintiff claimed that Defendant was acting in bad faith by refusing to pay the claim, but Defendant denied payment because the policy excluded coverage for injuries sustained while operating a vehicle owned by his employer. Defendant then filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss the claims, which was granted by the lower court as they agreed that the vehicle Plaintiff was driving did not meet the requirements for coverage under the policy. In response, Plaintiff appealed the trial court’s dismissal.
On appeal, the Court analyzed the language of the insurance policy, with the relevant part stating that coverage is available for “a non-owned car,” so the question the Court considered was whether the employer’s truck constituted a “non-owned car.” The policy language did not directly define “non-owned car”, but it does specifically state that a car is not a “non-owned car” if it is owned, registered or leased by an employer. The Court then stated that West Virginia law dictates that clear and unambiguous language in an insurance policy is not subject to judicial construction or interpretation, and found the language in the policy to clearly and unambiguously exclude the Plaintiff from coverage. In making its finding, the Court also stated that there was nothing in the record to indicate that any public policy was violated by the language of the insurance policy. Therefore, the Court held that the lower court correctly ruled on the motion for summary judgment and affirmed the dismissal.