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Monday, August 19, 2019

Illinois high court affirms rulings for plaintiff in underinsured motorist coverage case

By Angela Underwood | Mar 29, 2018

SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois Supreme Court has affirmed appellate and trial court rulings in favor of a plaintiff who had filed a complaint after an insurance company denied coverage following a car crash. 

Justice Robert Thomas delivered the March 22 opinion, with Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Charles Freeman, Thomas Kilbride, Rita Garman and Anne Burke concurring in Phoungeun Thounsavath v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. to allow State Farm's appeal.

Thounsavath, who was injured as a passenger in an auto accident with driver Clinton Evans, was denied underinsured motorist coverage since the State Farm policy's driver exclusion endorsement named Clinton Evans as an excluded driver, according to the ruling.

After Thounsavath, and later State Farm, filed complaints for declaratory judgment, Thounsavath was granted summary judgment. The appellate court affirmed the lower court's decision, leaving the final decision to the Supreme Court, which began its analysis noting “a court’s primary function is to ascertain and give effect to the intention of the parties, as expressed in the policy language."

“In this case, State Farm and plaintiff agreed that Clinton Evans was not an 'insured' under plaintiff’s automobile liability insurance policies,” Thomas wrote. “However, the parties agreed that plaintiff was an insured. Once plaintiff was designated an “insured” under her policies with State Farm, then, State Farm was prohibited from either directly or indirectly denying her underinsured motorist coverage.”

Thomas detailed the policy dollar amount “for liability insurance at $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident, which exceeded the minimum statutory limits.”

“Because the underinsured motorist coverage was mandated by statute, State Farm’s driver exclusion endorsement could not exclude that coverage through a contractual provision,” Thomas wrote. “Under the facts of this case, application of the driver exclusion to bar plaintiff, the named insured, from recovering underinsured motorist coverage pursuant to her policies with State Farm violates section 143a-2(4) and, therefore, public policy.”

Thomas in his analysis noted State Farm’s argument that Thounsavath “is attempting to secure more protection for herself than she was willing to extend to the general public when she agreed to and signed the named driver exclusion."

“This is incorrect,” Thomas wrote. “The accident in this case happened while Clinton Evans was driving his own vehicle, insured under his own policy.”

“If a member of the general public was injured in an accident with Clinton Evans, he or she could recover from Evans under Evans’s liability policy,” Thomas continued. “If that individual’s underinsured motorist policy provided higher limits than Evans’s liability policy, they could seek underinsured motorist coverage under their policy, as plaintiff is doing in this case.”

Counting on a few precedent cases to support its argument, State Farm failed to convince the court.

“None of the cases cited by State Farm support its claim that the driver exclusion endorsement in plaintiff’s policies could deny plaintiff underinsured motorist coverage under the facts of this case,” Thomas wrote.

“For all the foregoing reasons, we affirm the judgment of the appellate court, which affirmed the trial court’s order denying State Farm’s motion for summary judgment and granting plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment,” Thomas concluded.

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