Permission? To Operate The Vehicle

A Dallas Appeals Court upheld a lower Court ruling in an interesting case. The ruling applies to the same facts anywhere in Texas, including, Fort Worth, Arlington, Grand Prairie, or Weatherford.
This case is valid law today but was decided in 1989. The fact pattern is unique. The style of the case is United States Fire Insurance Company v. United Service Automobile Association.
The underlying liability lawsuit arose out of an accident that occurred when an Anna Milliken was riding as a passenger, with a Douglas Martin, being the driver. The car Douglas was driving was owned by his father and was covered by the United States Fire Insurance Company (U.S. Fire) policy. Anna’s insurance was United Service Automobile Association. Douglas testified about some swerving and horseplay prior to the accident. Anna testified that Douglas was zigzagging the wheel back and forth and that she grabbed the wheel on two occasions prior to the accident. She was doing this to play back with Douglas. The first time she did this, Douglas did not object, and the second time was when the accident occurred causing serious injury to Douglas. Douglas sued Anna for his injuries.
The issue in this case was between the insurance companies and which one should be defending and paying on behalf of Anna. U.S. Fire argued that Anna was not using the vehicle with a reasonable belief that she was entitled to use the vehicle.
The Court got into a lengthy discussion about what it means to “use” a vehicle. They cited many acts that constitute use of a vehicle. They ruled that the fact that she was a passenger in the Martin automobile was enough by itself to constitute “use” of the automobile. The Court cited many other interesting examples of “use.”
“Use” was the first issue. The second issue was, whether or not Anna had a reasonable belief that she was entitled to be operating the vehicle. This discussion was also interesting in that U.S. Fire kept argueing from the standpoint of what Douglas may have thought about this belief. However, the Court focused on whether or not Anna believed she could be doing what she did. In other words, the inquery was whether Anna had a “reasonable belief” that she was entitled to operate the automobile at the time of the accident. Stated another way, did Anna have a “reasonable belief” that she was entitled to grab the steering wheel when she did. The Court ruled that she did.
In Texas, there are many different forms for the policy’s issued. A close reading of these policy’s is vital to determining the rights of people making claims against those policy’s. One should not hesitate to speak with an experienced Insurance Law Attorney when making a claim against an insurance company. As can be seen in this case, two insurance companies were fighting between themselves over the meaning of the policy language to determine which of them should be responsible on the claim..

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