Putting A Ring on It Doesn’t Bind Driver to Auto Policy Tort Election in PA

In many states, auto policy holders need to decide under what circumstances they will be able to pursue pain and suffering claims when they sign up for coverage.  The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently addressed what parties are bound to the policy holder’s choice in  Sally McWeeney v. Estate of Janet R. Strickler.   McWeeney was injured in an auto accident with Janet Strickler, and the York County Court of Common Pleas granted summary judgment to Strickler on the basis that McWeeney was insured under her fiancee’s Progressive Insurance policy and that her claims were barred under the policy’s limited tort option.  McWeeney’s fiancé, Richard  Brant, was the named insured on the policy but McWeeney was listed as a principal driver along with Brant, and was also a permissive driver at the time of the accident.

The lower court held that McWeeney was a named insured for the purposes of the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibilities Law, and thus bound to Brant’s limited tort election, because her name was listed on the declarations page as a principal driver.

McWeeney appealed the York County Court decision, focusing on whether or not McWeeney was forced to accept the limited tort option under Brant’s policy or could elect the full tort option.   The  Superior Court, performing a statutory analysis, held that that a “named insured” on a policy is only that one person who is identified by name as an insured on the policy, as defined in the MVFRL.    The MVFRL holds that only one who is identified by name as an insured can elect the limited court option

The court also considered the issue of McWeeney’s position as a permissive driver and whether that bound her as an “insured” driver to Brant’s election of limited tort because the Progressive policy stated that all permissive drivers are considered insureds for purposes of tort election.  The Superior Court found that the Progressive policy “impermissibly bars more drivers from claiming non-economic damages against third party tortfeasors than was contemplated in Section 1705”,  and was therefore not enforceable.

This case thus serves to clarify the meaning of “insured” under section 1705 of MVFRL and Pennsylvania insurance policies.  A motorist who owns no vehicle and is unrelated to the owner of the car she drives may seek non-economic damages against a third party torfeasor, even if she was a fiancee of the named insured and a permissive driver under the policy.  Any insurance policy that seeks to expand the definition of insured beyond that which is described in section 1705 will be invalidated.

Thanks to Remy Cahn for her contribution to this post.  If you would like more information please write to mbono@wcmlaw.com.