Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Appeals court holds judge not required to give jury instruction on presumption of consent to use vehicle if contrary evidence has been offered

McConnico, an employee of Dollar Rent-A-Car, struck and killed Kohlmeyer, a pedestrian, while he was driving one of Dollar's automobiles.

McConnico's primary responsibility was to deliver automobiles to hotels. On the evening before the accident McConnico took a Dollar vehicle to run a a personal errand. The accident occurred as he was driving the car back to Dollar the next day.

McConnico had signed a written acknowledgement when he was hired that he was prohibited from using company rental vehicles except under the direction of a Dollar manager, and that unauthorized use of a vehicle was grounds for discharge. He was in fact fired on the morning of the accident for violating the policy.

There was evidence that personal use of Dollar automobiles was commonplace and few employees were reprimanded for doing so.

Dollar and its excess carrier filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that there was no coverage because McConnico did not have express or implied permission to drive the car.
The excess policy provided coverage for liability incurred by Dollar and "anyone . . . using with [Dollar's] permission" an automobile Dollar owned.

After trial the jury returned a verdict that McConnico was an unauthorized driver, thereby finding no coverage.

On appeal, Kohlmeyer's estate argued that under Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 231, § 85C*, McConnico was presumed to be driving with Dollar's express or implied consent. The statute states that in certain circumstances in cases against automobile insurers a driver is presumed to have consent to drive a car.

In United Nat'l Ins. Co. v. Kohlmeyer, 81 Mass. App. Ct. 32 (2011), the Massachusetts Appeals Court held:

The presumption embodied in G. L. c. 231, § 85C is part of a legislative structure
supporting the Commonwealth's compulsory motor vehicle insurance requirements.
Read in the context of the statutes to which
§ 85C refers, the support structure operates in this fashion. An insurer's liability under an automobile policy “insuring against liability for loss or damage on account of bodily injury or death” becomes absolute when a covered loss occurs and is not conditioned on an insured's payment of the loss to the injured party. See G.L. c. 175 § 112, amended by St.1977, c. 437. If the injured party obtains a judgment against the insured, the injured party is entitled to bring an action against the insurer to reach and apply the insurance proceeds.
See G.L. c. 175 § 113; G.L. c. 214 § 3(9)
. In an action to reach and apply, the
presumption desired by the estate applies but, as § 85C
expressly states, only if the plaintiff is seeking to “reach and apply the proceeds of [a] motor vehicle liability policy, as defined in” G.L. c. 90 § 34A.

The court noted that the statute applied only to compulsory policies, and the policy at issue was excess, not compulsory.

It went on to hold that even if the statute had applied, the presumption would have been enough to meet the estate's burden initially, but it was rebuttable, "and continue[d] only until evidence [was] introduced which would warrant a finding contrary to the presumed fact." Because there was such evidence, the judge was not required to instruct the jury on the presumption.

*This link is to the statutes posted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly recently ran an article explaining that this website is not updated frequently, and recent revisions to statutes are not shown.

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