ACUITY v. Johnson – Insurance Dispute Following Truck Crash

Commercial auto insurance policies tend to offer some of the best protection in the event of a crash when fault is clearly attributed to the commercial driver.
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In the recent case of ACUITY v. Johnson, the carrier paid damages to the estate of a woman killed when a tractor trailer owned by its insured landed on top of her vehicle. However, the insurer disputed the vehicle involved in the crash was in fact covered, and sued its insured for recovery of those damages – approximately $560,000.

The outcome did not impact the decedent’s estate, but it’s worth examining to further understand the ways in which insurers will always seek to bolster their bottom line. It’s also noteworthy in the sense most drivers assume commercial operators are fully insured at all times. This case shows that particularly smaller outfits may not carry full coverage at any given time, and if there is an oversight, this could negatively impact one’s ability to collect full compensation from the insurer.

According to court records, defendant/truck company owner operated his small trucking business with just two semi-tractor trucks, which were insured through a singular carrier. However, he only actively drove one truck at a time, so he only insured one truck at a time. Depending on the truck in use, he would switch his coverage back and forth by contacting his insurance agent in advance.

It’s undisputed that in December 2009, he called the agent to switch insurance coverage from his 1986 model truck to his 1987 model truck. This was done without issue. However, the following day, he called back to report the 1987 model truck had broken down, and he needed coverage switched back to the 1986 model truck.

What is disputed was whether the truck owner called to switch coverage back to the 1987 model between that time and December 2010. Insurance company claims he did. Truck owner claims he did not. No records exist to support insurer’s assertion, but the agent would later testify he was the one to take the call.

That month, the 1986 model truck, pulling a trailer owned by another firm, was being driven by the second company’s operator when it collided with a vehicle driven by decedent. The contract between the truck owner and the trailer owner stipulated the truck owner’s insurance would be the primary carrier, with the trailer owner’s insurer being the secondary carrier.

When truck company owner called to report the fatal crash, the insurer reported the 1986 model wasn’t covered because, according to the insurer, the owner switched his coverage to the 1987 model in February 2010.

While insurer paid damages to decedent’s estate, it still disputed coverage. In a subsequent lawsuit to recover that payout, truck company owner presented numerous pieces of evidence to show why it was unlikely he would have switched the coverage back to the 1987 model following his December 2009 call. The primary piece of evidence was that the 1987 model truck was never repaired, so it remained inoperable. It would defy common sense for him to switch the insurance back to a truck that wasn’t running.

He did renew his policy in February 2010, and that policy identified the 1987 model as the vehicle that was covered.

This wouldn’t mean the 1986 vehicle was wholly uninsured, as the trailer owner did have insurance, and, per that policy, if the truck owner was otherwise uninsured, he would be considered a “permissive user.” That would have meant the trailer owner was the primary insurance carrier. This was the position staked by the truck owner’s insurer.

The trial court did not take this position, and a jury found in favor of the truck owner, requiring the insurer to provide primary insurance coverage. This finding was later affirmed by the Eighth Circuit.

Our Asheville trucking accident lawyers recognize that when it comes to disputes with insurance companies, resolution is rarely simple. Access to an experienced legal team bolsters your chances of full damage recovery.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
ACUITY v. Johnson, Jan. 15, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Semian v. Ledgemere Transp., Inc. – Comparative Fault in Bicycle-Bus Crash, Jan. 15, 2015, Asheville Accident Lawyer Blog

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