A recent Supreme Court decision from the State of Maine brings to light some interesting considerations for accidents involving commercial work trucks and insurance coverage. The case, State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance v. Estate of Carey, stems from a tragic auto accident that claimed the life of James Carey. Mr. Carey was struck and killed by Roger Linton who was an independent contractor and former employee of Jennings Masonry. Linton was driving a large commercial truck owned and insured by Jennings but was not working at the time of the accident. State Farm insured the truck involved in the loss.
Linton was not currently an employee of Jennings, but was in the past. He also frequently drove Jennings vehicles with permission. On the date of this accident, he was again driving in a Jennings truck but did not return the vehicle when he completed his work. Instead, Linton took the truck to several friends houses and a tavern. It was during this “excursion” that the fatal auto accident occurred involving Mr. Carey. Linton was legally drunk at the time of the accident and arrested.
Quickly, State Farm petitioned the Court for a declaratory judgment stating that they had no obligation to insure or defend Linton. Their position was that he did not have “permission” to use the vehicle at the time of the accident and was not using it for work purposes, and therefore, he was not legally operating the vehicle at the time of the collision. If he did not have the permission of the owner to operate the vehicle at the time of the accident, State Farm, would not be required to cover the loss. (As a side note, if that sounds unfair because it could leave the owner of Jennings Masonry holding the bag – you are correct. If an insurance company can avoid paying they will regardless of the harm it might present to their insured).
Some States with mandatory insurance coverage have taken the position that since the lawmakers intended all vehicles to carry liability insurance, that they would be inclined to find coverage in a situation like the one at hand, so long as permission was given, at any time, to operate the vehicle. This is the so called “initial permission” rule. The Maine Supreme Court did not accept this approach and instead held that the trial court would have to reconsider the case under the minor deviation rule. The minor deviation rule has long been the standard for determining whether an employees actions are covered under the employees policy. Clearly, an employee acting on behalf of his employer at the time of an accident is covered by the company’s policy. Under the minor deviation rule, an employee who makes a slight or minor detour, such as stopping for lunch, while using a work vehicle will be covered. A major deviation, however, such as the one taken by Linton are unlikely to be covered because it was so far outside of the scope of his employment and work related use of the vehicle, that a jury would conclude that he did not have his employers permission to use the vehicle in that manner.
Auto accidents involving commercial trucks are very serious because of the size and weight of the vehicles involved. The injuries sustained can be catastrophic, or as in the case of Mr. Carey, fatal. It is imperative that you speak with an experienced truck accident attorney right away to ensure that you receive all of the compensation that you deserve.