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Angiulo: Promises Made in Auto Insurance Applications May Stick

Monday, September 21, 2015


For many people, driving is a daily activity and owning a car is a necessity. You may use your car to get to and from work, to perform duties while at work, or to deliver the kids to their various activites. Whatever the reason, if you own your car in Massachusetts you also pay for auto insurance.  This certainty is based on the fact that the Commonwealth is a compulsory motor vehicle liability insurance state.  This is a long way of saying you have to get car insurance in Massachusetts.  A recent case from the Supreme Judicial Court reminds us not to be complacent with our policies.

 It can be easy to forget how important auto insurance is. We get in our car every day, traveling dozens or hundreds of miles at speeds exceeding sixty or seventy miles per hour and emerge without breaking a sweat. Keep in mind that these vehicles weigh thousands of pounds and have sufficient force to destroy buildings and kill, maim, or severely injur any living creature that stands in their way.  All of a sudden that morning commute has a bit more significance.

As the case of Commerce Insurance v. Gentile points out that the relationship between you, as the insured, and the insurance company, as the insurer, is a contractual one. Like any contract, the terms of the agreement will define the nature and scope of the responsibilities and benefits.  Of course, at the heart of auto insurance contracts is the insured's promise to pay their premiums and the insurer's promise to pay for damages up to an agreed upon amount if a covered event occurs.

Most readers will understand that the better the driving history of the policy holder and other covered members of the household, the smaller the auto insurance premiums.  This is based on the idea that past behavior is a fair predictor of future acts.  Some people, like the insured in Gentile, can promise that a member of their household will not drive the vehicle subject to a policy and will get in exchange a lower premium.

In Gentile, the Supreme Judicial Court addressed the question what happens if an accident occurs and that excluded person was the operator.  In coming to their answer, they focused on one of the basic principles of these contracts:  insurers will not have to pay out if the insured makes material misrepresentations when applying for or renewing their policy. This idea is found within common law tradition and, more particularly, in statutory authority.  It makes sense because permitting lies to secure a lower premium would mean the insurance company was taking on more risk than they had bargained for.  While no one wants to pay more than they have to, insurance companies do not go into this line of work to lose money.

The court, correspondingly, found that the insured's policy in the Gentile case did not cover the personal injury suffered as a result of the excluded operator's negligent operation.  In the abstract, this is a perfectly reasonable conclusion.  You get what you bargain for in this world.  

If we humanize this set of facts, however, there are some important lessons for the insured parties out in the world.  First, consider that if you find yourself responsible for personal injuries not covered by insurance policies you may be facing some signficant financial burdens.  In addition, if you are the injured party realize that not everyone else on the road is as diligent about their responsibilities as you may be.  Even if you operate your multi-thousand pound automobile at a reasonable speed, there are situations that may arise causing signficant injury and cost that are outside of your control.  What is in your power, however, is avoiding complacency with your auto insurance policy.  

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] 


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