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Dude, where’s my truck?

When was the last time you saw a case in which it mattered where a truck was parked overnight?

In a new decision from Alexandria fed­eral court, the place where a truck was garaged on the day of an accident really mattered – it meant the difference be­tween $75,000 in underinsured motorist coverage and $2 million in UIM for a driver who was badly injured in an acci­dent.

The plaintiff, Robert Hall Sr., was a driver for The Washington Post – he was hurt in a wreck and sued a guy who had only $25K in bodily injury coverage, and his damages were going to exceed that amount.

In other words, Hall would be needing UIM coverage.

His regular truck was covered by a policy issued to the company that leased the trucks to the Post. Under the terms of the policy, the UIM coverage differed by state. The amount was $2 million in coverage for trucks “principally garaged” in Virginia, but for those garaged in Maryland, the amount was only $75,000 in UIM.

You can tell where this is going.

The accident happened on May 15, 2014. Hall’s regular truck was in the shop and he got a substitute truck for three days – May 14-16.

The substitute truck was licensed in Maryland and, until the three-day loaner period, was garaged in Maryland.

Travelers thought it had a great chance to cut its UIM exposure substantially.

But U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee wasn’t having any of it. In Hall v. Travelers Cas. Inc. Co. of Am. (VLW 016- 3-459), he said the policy is clear – if a vehicle is garaged in Virginia, then it’s covered, and the amount of UIM is $2M.

The plaintiff didn’t dispute that up until May 14, the truck would not have been covered, but for the loaner days, it was in Virginia. And it didn’t matter that it wasn’t taxed or licensed in Virginia. Travelers cited a series of cases involving required coverage, but Lee wouldn’t bite.

The “policy coverage that [the parent company] selected to protect its fleet ap­plies here,” not the cases Travelers cited, he said.

And Travelers, in its brief to the court, tried the old “this isn’t hard, your honor” approach. Its lawyers really should check a tendency to condescend.

Lee wrote, “Travelers contends that other courts interpret ‘principally ga­raged” according to its ordinary mean­ing, and that it is “not a difficult concept’ because it means where a vehicle is ‘kept most of the time.’”

The judge pulled up a 2005 Nebraska Supreme Court case on point that nei­ther side used in argument.

The court in Blair v. State Farm Ins. Co., 698 N.W.2d 266, said that while the term isn’t difficult to define, “it is difficult to apply in a temporal context.”

The Nebraska court added that to figure out where a vehicle is kept most often, “one must establish a defined peri­od of time and then determine the place that the vehicle was located more often than any other place during that time period.”

For a three-day stretch in May 2014, the truck involved in the accident was in the Commonwealth of Virginia. For that reason, Travelers has to provide $2 mil­lion in UIM coverage in the case when it goes to trial.

Paul Fletcher

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