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Safeway Insurance Company of Alabama, Inc. v. Thomas

Alabama Court of Civil Appeals

March 30, 2018

Safeway Insurance Company of Alabama, Inc.
v.
Martez Thomas

          Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-16-900950)

          THOMAS, JUDGE.

         In May 2015, Martez Thomas was the passenger in an automobile owned by Lena Spano and operated by Desean Evans, the father of Spano's child. An automobile operated by Calvin Jones ran a stop sign and collided with Spano's automobile; Thomas was injured. Thomas's damages exceeded the limits of Jones's automobile-liability policy, so Thomas sued Spano's insurer, Safeway Insurance Company of Alabama, Inc. ("Safeway"), in the Jefferson Circuit Court ("the trial court") seeking underinsured-motorist ("UIM") benefits. Safeway filed a motion for a summary judgment, in which it argued that Thomas was not entitled to benefits under Spano's policy based on an exclusion in the policy precluding coverage when the automobile covered under the policy was being operated by an unlicensed driver ("the unlicensed-driver exclusion").

         Thomas opposed Safeway's motion and also sought a judgment in his favor. After discovery was completed, the parties stipulated to the following facts: Evans was not and had not ever been a licensed driver, and Thomas was unaware that Evans did not possess a driver's license; no other facts regarding the accident were disputed. Based on arguments made by Thomas, the trial court entered a judgment declaring the unlicensed-driver exclusion unenforceable against Thomas because, the trial court said, based on Thomas's lack of knowledge of Evans's status as an unlicensed driver, the exclusion violated Alabama's UIM statute, Ala. Code 1975, § 32-7-23(a), and Alabama's public policy. The trial court further ordered Safeway to pay to Thomas the policy limits of $50, 000 and costs of $173.10. Safeway timely appealed the judgment.

         On appeal, Safeway argues that the trial court erred in declaring that the unlicensed-driver exclusion in Safeway's policy violates § 32-7-23(a) or public policy. Safeway contends that the unlicensed-driver exclusion, like many other insurance-policy exclusions examined by Alabama courts, is enforceable and that, in essence, by basing its decision, in part, on Thomas's knowledge of Evans's status, the trial court impermissibly engrafted a knowledge requirement onto the exclusion and rewrote the policy. Based on our review of the relevant statutes and caselaw, we agree with Safeway that the unlicensed-driver exclusion is valid and enforceable.

         General Principles Governing the Construction of Insurance Policies

         We begin our analysis by setting out the general rules governing our construction of insurance contracts.

"General rules of contract law govern an insurance contract. Twin City Fire Ins. Co. v. Alfa Mut. Ins. Co., 817 So.2d 687, 691 (Ala. 2001). The court must enforce the insurance policy as written if the terms are unambiguous, id.; Liggans R.V. Ctr. v. John Deere Ins. Co., 575 So.2d 567, 569 (Ala. 1991). Whether a provision of an insurance policy is ambiguous is a question of law. Turvin v. Alfa Mut. Gen. Ins. Co., 774 So.2d 597, 599 (Ala. Civ. App. 2000)."

Safeway Ins. Co. of Alabama, Inc. v. Herrera, 912 So.2d 1140, 1143 (Ala. 2005). Furthermore, "[t]he identity of the insured and liability of the insurer are determined from the terms of the [insurance] contract." Kinnon v. Universal Underwriters Ins. Co., 418 So.2d 887, 888 (Ala. 1982).

         In addition, the law gives guidance regarding the construction of exclusions within an insurance policy.

"[E]xceptions to coverage must be interpreted as narrowly as possible in order to provide maximum coverage to the insured. However, courts are not at liberty to rewrite policies to provide coverage not intended by the parties. Newman v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co., 456 So.2d 40, 41 (Ala. 1984). In the absence of statutory provisions to the contrary, insurance companies have the right to limit their liability and write policies with narrow coverage. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Bonitz Insulation Co. of Alabama, 424 So.2d 569, 573 (Ala. 1982). If there is no ambiguity, courts must enforce insurance contracts as written and cannot defeat express provisions in a policy, including exclusions from coverage, by making a new contract for the parties. Turner v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 440 So.2d 1026, 1028 (Ala. 1983)."

Johnson v. Allstate Ins. Co., 505 So.2d 362, 365 (Ala. 1987); see also Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Thomas, 103 So.3d 795, 803 (Ala. 2012).

         Finally, because this case involves UIM coverage, we must look to the UIM statute for guidance. Alabama's UIM statute reads as follows:

"(a) No automobile liability or motor vehicle liability policy insuring against loss resulting from liability imposed by law for bodily injury or death suffered by any person arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle shall be delivered or issued for delivery in this state with respect to any motor vehicle registered or principally garaged in this state unless coverage is provided therein or supplemental thereto, in limits for bodily injury or death set forth in subsection (c) of Section 32-7-6, under provisions approved by the Commissioner of Insurance for the protection of persons insured thereunder who are legally entitled to recover damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting therefrom; provided, that the named insured shall have the right to reject such coverage; and provided further, that unless the named insured requests such coverage in writing, such coverage need not be provided in or supplemental to a renewal policy where the named insured had rejected the coverage in connection with the policy previously issued to him or her by the same insurer."

Ala. Code 1975, § 32-7-23(a).

         We must also be cognizant of the following principles particularly applicable to UIM coverage.

"It was also held in [State Farm Automobile Insurance Co. v.] Reaves[, 292 Ala. 218, 292 So.2d 95 (1974), ] that Alabama's Uninsured Motorist Statute, Tit. 36, § 74(62a), Code 1940 (now § 32-7-23, Code 1975), mandated uninsured motorist coverage for 'persons insured thereunder, ' that is, persons insured under the liability provisions of the policy. Thus, a class of insureds named in the provisions of an automobile liability policy in Alabama are provided uninsured motorist coverage regardless of whether that class is specifically named in the policy providing uninsured motorist coverage.
"Therefore, the Court must look to the terms for which the parties contracted in order to ascertain the extent of coverage under uninsured motorist provisions."

Alabama Farm Bureau Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. Pigott, 393 So.2d 1379, 1382-83 (Ala. 1981). "[W]here an exclusion in a policy is more restrictive than the uninsured motorist statute, it is void and unenforceable." Watts v. Preferred Risk Mut. Ins. Co., 423 So.2d 171, 175 (Ala. 1982); see also Alabama Farm Bureau Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. Mitchell, 373 So.2d 1129, 1134 (Ala. Civ. App. 1979) (stating that "insurance policy provisions that attempt to limit or infringe upon uninsured motorist coverage are contrary to the uninsured motorist statute and are thereby void and unenforceable").

         Finally, we note that, when considering whether a contractual provision violates public policy, ...


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