Safe Auto policy doesn't cover girlfriend; Dissenting judge takes issue with majority's interpretation

By Glenn Minnis | Oct 17, 2017

HARRISBURG – The state Superior Court has affirmed a Lehigh County decision stipulating that auto insurers are not obligated to provide coverage to non-family members who live with policy-holders under the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law.

The Sept. 18 ruling stems from a 2016 decision in which Safe Auto Insurance Co. was granted summary judgment on the grounds policyholder Rene Oriental-Guillermo’s girlfriend was not covered by his policy, that the insurer's unlisted resident driver exclusion applied and it had no duty to indemnity Dixon.

According to the court's opinion, Rachel Dixon and another motorist were involved in an accident in 2013 in which Priscilla Jimenez was injured as a passenger in the other vehicle. Dixon was driving a car insured through Safe Auto that was owned by her boyfriend, Oriental-Guillermo.

Jimenez sought to have the lower court’s ruling overturned on the grounds Safe Auto's provision violated MVFRL's guidelines requiring a vehicle owner to ensure that all drivers behind the wheel of their vehicle are insured. Oriental-Guillermo’s policy included an "unlisted resident driver exclusion" that directly excluded people who resided with the policyholder, the opinion states.

In rendering its ruling, the three-judge Superior Court panel ruled that Safe Auto's stance was valid because MVFRL statute places the burden of making sure a driver is insured on the vehicle-owner, and not the insurance companies. The court also found that the policy language was "unambiguous" and that the policyholder did not list Dixon as an additional driver on his policy.

“This provision does not provide, as appellants argue, that if the owner of a car allows someone to drive his car who does not have insurance and the driver is in accident, then the owner’s insurance company is automatically responsible for providing insurance to the otherwise uninsured driver,” the court stated in a majority decision penned by Judge Alice Beck Dubow.

“Such an interpretation would shift to the insurance company unidentified risks and there is no provision in the MVFRL that indicates that the legislature, when it enacted the MVFRL, intended to shift the risk to insurance companies to insure unidentified individuals who live with the insured, but are not related to the insured,” the court added.  

President Judge Emeritus Kate Ford Elliott issued a dissenting opinion.

"I believe that the MVFRL was never intended to abandon those who are injured using Pennsylvania highways for the protection of an automobile insurer’s bottom line. While it is correct that the MVFRL was enacted to address the high cost of insurance in this Commonwealth, which skyrocketed under the former No-Fault Act, I do not believe that it was ever the intent of the legislature to enact a system in which low-cost, low-coverage insurance effectively makes for no insurance at all," Ford Elliott wrote.

Jimenez was represented by attorney James Haggerty of Haggerty, Goldberg, Schleifer & Kupersmith.

Safe Auto was represented by Mitchell Berger of the Philadelphia-based firm of Ryan, Brown, Berger & Gibbons.

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