Ohio SC stays consistent on business issues

John O'Brien Aug. 23, 2007, 3:29pm


COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Supreme Court of Ohio recently entered another 5-2 pro-business decision, ruling Wednesday that automobile insurance companies may deny coverage for uninsured motorists who are immune from civil liability.

Justices Paul Pfeifer and Judith Ann Lanzinger dissented, just as they did earlier this month in a case that ruled Gov. Ted Strickland's veto of a tort reform law invalid.

Justice Robert Cupp authored that opinion, as well as the most recent decision. It features a car accident between two Columbus police officers, who were both chasing a suspect on foot. It was not disputed that the City of Columbus and Officer Caroline Castro were both immune from liability, but Officer Jennifer Snyder sought recovery from her insurer, American Family, anyway.

Her attorneys convinced the trial court, granting her partial summary judgment. The Franklin County Common Pleas Court noted a statute that identified motorists enjoying sovereign immunity, like police officers, as uninsured motorists. The Court added it made no sense to deny uninsured coverage if the tortfeasor could use the immunity as a defense.

The ruling was reversed by the 10th District Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court agreed. Cupp decided to take the policy language literally. He also wrote Snyder apparently received Workers' Compensation benefits.

"Had the policy in this case not contained the 'legally entitled to recover' language, the police cruiser would have been an uninsured vehicle within the meaning of R.C. 3937.18(B)(5), and, absent another policy condition excluding coverage, Snyder would have been entitled to recover," Cupp wrote.

"But this policy did contain an additional condition for coverage, and under the facts of this matter, Snyder did not meet that condition. ... Accordingly, a policy provision limiting the insured's recovery of uninsured or underinsured-motorist benefits to amounts which the insured is 'legally entitled to recover' is enforceable and its effect will be to preclude recovery when the tortfeasor is immune under R.C. Chapter 2744."

Chief Justice Thomas Moyer and justices Maureen O'Connor, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton and Terrance O'Donnell joined in the majority.

Pfeifer offered a dissenting opinion, in which Lanzinger agreed.

"This overbroad reading allows an insurer to contract around the definition of 'uninsured motorist'; yet the established rule is that policy terms may not contradict statutory requirements," Pfeifer wrote.

"In my view, American Family's policy restriction may not be upheld against tortfeasors with diplomatic or sovereign immunity, since they are specifically defined as 'uninsured motorists"' within R.C. 3937.18(B)."

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