In North Carolina, the insurance contract controls whether insurance coverage exists. There are several variations in insurance policies that are directly bearing on the question of coverage in this type of situation. In order to determine whether there could be coverage a determination needs to be made as to whether the insurance policy contains “Any Person”, “Reasonable Belief” or “Permissive Use” language and whether the person driving the car (tortfeasor) was in “lawful Possession” of the vehicle.
Some insurance policies define the insured as “any person using your “covered auto”. This provision provides coverage to anyone using your car. It has no limiting language, so presumably even someone who has stolen the insured’s car would be an insured and the insurance company would likely have to provide coverage to that person.
The analysis used to determine whether the tortfeasor had “Lawful Possession” or “Reasonable Belief” that he could use the vehicle when the accident occurred is almost identical. In Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Baer, 113 N.C. App. 517, 520 (1994), the court held that the “Reasonable Belief” exclusion included in the Nationwide insurance policy was not in conflict with the N.C. Financial Responsibility Act. The court reasoned that the exclusion requiring a person have a reasonable belief that he was entitled to use the vehicle was simply another way of determining whether a person knows that he lacks the owner’s permission to use the vehicle. In previous cases, the court had concluded that the exclusion broadens the inquiry into whether the tortfeasor had a subjective, reasonable belief that he was entitled to use the vehicle.
However, some insurance policies particularly corporate policies contain a “Permissive Use” clause. These types of policies usually extend coverage to “any person while using the insured auto with the permission of the named insured provided his actual operation is within the scope of such permission”.
If the insurance policy in question contains the “Permissive Use” clause, the analysis of coverage is as follows:
- First, did the insured grant permission for the tortfeasor to use the vehicle? The permission can be either express or implied. If not there may not be coverage.
- Secondly, did the tortfeasor exceed the scope of the permission granted? The scope of the permission can be limited temporarily, geographically, and to limited purposes. N.C. courts follow the minor deviation rule, which provides that if the use of the vehicle by the permittee is not a gross deviation of the terms then coverage will apply.
The N.C. Financial Responsibility Act requires that the policy provide minimum coverage if the tortfeasor is in “Lawful Possession” of the vehicle. “Lawful Possession” basically means that the tortfeasor did not steal the vehicle. Most insurance policies do not include language regarding “Lawful Possession” however this does not prevent the insurance company from having to provide coverage if the tortfeasor was in “Lawful Possession” of the vehicle at the time of the accident. The statute will control in situations where the language of the statute and the language of the insurance policy are in conflict with each other.
Coverage analysis should begin with the insurance policy. If the policy contains “Any Person” language, there is almost certainly coverage regardless of the reason why the tortfeasor had possession of the vehicle. If the policy contains the “Reasonable Belief” language, the analysis is one-step. Did the tortfeasor have a “Reasonable Belief” that he was entitled to use the vehicle? If the answer is yes then he is likely entitled to full coverage. If the answer is no, he probably not entitled to any coverage.
If the insurance policy has a provision, regarding “Permissive Use” the coverage determination hinges on whether the individual had permission from the insured to use the vehicle and that he did not exceed the scope of that permission. If both of these elements are met, then the policy will likely provide coverage. If the individual did not have permission to the use the vehicle, you then must look the N.C. Financial Responsibility Act to determine if the individual was in “Lawful Possession” of the vehicle and therefore entitled to minimum limits coverage. For these types of analyses, you should also consult an attorney specifically one familiar with insurance law, insurance defense, and insurance coverage.