Safeway Insurance Company of Alabama, Inc.
from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-16-900950)
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
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.
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.
Principles Governing the Construction of Insurance
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).
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).
because this case involves UIM coverage, we must look to the
UIM statute for guidance. Alabama's UIM statute reads as
"(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
Ala. Code 1975, § 32-7-23(a).
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
we note that, when considering whether a contractual
provision violates public policy, ...