Where plaintiff sought to recover against her car insurance company pursuant to uninsured motorist coverage after being in a car accident with an uninsured driver, the trial court’s ruling that plaintiff’s “non-owner” policy did not cover the accident because the car she was driving was “furnished or available for her regular use” was affirmed.
In Medders v. Newby, No. M2020-01094-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 6, 2021), plaintiff was driving a Jetta when she was struck by another car. Neither the owner nor the driver of the other car had insurance, so plaintiff served her insurance company in an attempt to recover under uninsured motorist coverage.
Plaintiff did not own the Jetta she was driving at the time of the accident. Plaintiff was engaged to Samuel Todd Tinnin, who worked for a used car company. Mr. Tinnin had his employer purchase the Jetta at an auction in June 2016, and he then bought the car from the employer on July 5, 2016. The accident occurred on July 11, and Plaintiff and Mr. Tinnin were married on July 12, 2016. On that same day, a title to the Jetta was issued in Mr. Tinnin’s name. In his deposition, Mr. Tinnin stated that he bought the car for plaintiff, he intended it to be a wedding present for plaintiff, and that he purchased it for her personal use. Mr. Tinnin changed his testimony at trial and stated that he bought the car with the intention of flipping it, but the trial court did not credit this testimony. Plaintiff began driving the car on July 5.
After a motion by the insurance company, the trial court bifurcated the trial, hearing evidence concerning only the coverage issue first and then addressing liability if needed. Based on the evidence, the trial court ruled that the accident was not covered, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
On appeal, plaintiff first challenged the trial court’s decision to bifurcate the trial. Noting first that because plaintiff “failed to request a jury trial as required by the Rules of Civil Procedure,” she had “waived her right to demand that the coverage issue be decided by a jury,” the Court went on to affirm the bifurcation here. The Court explained:
[T]he issue of coverage is not dependent on the issue of liability. Whether [plaintiff] was covered by either her or Mr. Tinnin’s auto policy is a question of contract, whereas the issue of liability is a question of negligence. No facts about the accident itself have any relevance to the coverage issue, and no facts concerning coverage have any relevance to the accident… Moreover,… [the insurance company] could be prejudiced if a jury tried the coverage and liability issues simultaneously because the jury would know insurance was an issue and could be improperly influenced to render a favorable verdict for [plaintiff].
The Court next analyzed the coverage issue. Plaintiff’s non-owner policy provided coverage for “any auto that is not owned by, registered to, or furnished or available for the regular use of you, a family member, or a resident, while in the legal custody of, or while being operated with the owner’s permission by, you, a family member or a resident.” A “regular operator” was defined as “someone who drives a covered auto more than 30 times per year or on a frequent and regular basis.” Based on the facts presented and the trial court’s credibility determination, the Court of Appeals agreed that the Jetta fell outside the coverage of this policy. The Court stated that Mr. Tinnin bought the car for plaintiff’s personal use, and that “[t]he fact that [plaintiff] did not have the opportunity to drive the Jetta for long before the accident occurred does not mean that the car was not furnished or available for her regular use.” The car therefore did not fall within the non-owner policy.
The car was also not covered under Mr. Tinnin’s insurance policy, which was an owner’s policy. Mr. Tinnin had four cars listed on his policy, and it was undiputed that he “did not contact [the insurance company] and ask that the Jetta be added to his automobile policy[.]”
Because the car did not fall within either plaintiff’s or Mr. Tinnin’s insurance policies, the trial court’s ruling that the accident was not covered was affirmed.
Uninsured motorist cases are highly dependent on the language of the insurance policy. Here, even though plaintiff did not officially own the car in question, the definition of non-owner in her policy led to this denial of coverage.
NOTE: This opinion was published one month after oral arguments in this case.