West Virginia Supreme Court Finds That Government Vehicle Exception in Motor Vehicle Insurance Policy Is Against Public Policy

wreck.jpegThe West Virginia Supreme Court has returned a 2008 auto accident case to the Harrison County Circuit Court for further review after ruling on the nature of liability insurance as it applied to situations involving government immunity. The case involved one driver, Jeffrey Jenkins, getting into an accident with Steven Stanton while both were driving their employer’s vehicle. Jenkins’s injuries included a fractured and dislocated hip and a fracture of the tibia.

Jenkins received workers compensation for his injuries because they took place during the course of his employment. He also sued Stanton and Stanton’s employer, the City of Elkins for his injuries, and sent a notice to his individual automobile insurance agency, Westfield Insurance Company. Westfield, in turn, filed a suit against Jenkins’s employer, Bombardier Aerospace Corporation and the City of Elkins’s insurance agency, National Union Fire Insurance Company.

The Harrison County Circuit Court found that both Elkins and Stanton were immune, along with Elkins’s insurance agency. Bombardier and Westfield were limited to a statutory $20,000 each on uninsured motorist claims, as a result of there being a government vehicle exception in each of their policies. Jenkins was not permitted to collect from his employer’s insurance due to the fact that he was already receiving workers compensation for his injuries.

After the circuit court’s ruling, Jenkins appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court considered whether the City of Elkins and Stanton were immune, whether the uninsured motor vehicle coverage applied in situations of immunity, whether the government vehicle section went against public policy, and whether a policy exclusion arising out of an injury during the course of employment precluded payment coverage for injuries.

The Supreme Court found that the circuit court had acted properly in granting immunity to Elkins, its insurance agency, and Stanton, under a previous court case that granted “political subdivisions” immunity from tort liability in actions covered by workers compensation. The Supreme Court noted that if the state legislature had wanted, it could have rewritten this portion of the statute, yet it chose not to do so.

The Supreme Court also found that the uninsured motor vehicle coverage was properly triggered in cases where a driver was hit by another driver who is immune from liability. However, the Supreme Court found the government vehicle section in Jenkins’s employer’s and Westfield’s policies — which limited them to just $20,000 liability — was against public policy and was therefore void. The Supreme Court also found that the policy exclusion did not preclude insurance payment coverage for injury. This means that it may be possible for Jenkins to collect from his employer’s insurance company in addition to receiving workers compensation insurance.

The case is significant because there are usually very few exceptions to the rule that if your employer has workers compensation insurance, you must receive workers compensation payments and surrender your right to sue the employer. Instead, you would typically only be able to sue other parties, as Jenkins did when he sued the City of Elkins and the other driver. However, now you could possibly hire a West Virginia car accident attorney to go after your employer’s insurance company for further proceeds, at least in cases where the other driver is immune.