Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fourth Circuit Affirms Virginia's Prohibited Stacking of Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage

             In Dooley v. Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit addressed whether the district court erred in holding that where an insurance policy fails to specify any particular amount of uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (UM/UIM coverage) afforded, an insured motorist is prohibited by his insurance policy from “stacking” or combining the UM/UIM coverage for each insured vehicle. 
             On appeal, Ronnie Steve Dooley, the plaintiff and insured motorist, argued that the insurance policy’s omission of any stated amount of UM/UIM coverage amounted to an ambiguity, and, therefore, the anti-stacking provision should be construed against Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company (Hartford), the insurance company, and in his favor. 
              In 2003 Dooley obtained an automobile insurance policy with Hartford.  At the time he had two vehicles insured.  In 2004 he added a third vehicle.   Dooley paid separate premiums for liability and UM/UIM coverage for each of these three vehicles and renewed the policy annually for three years without altering his coverage.  Dooley again renewed his policy in November 2008 (the 2008 policy). 
             While the 2008 policy was in effect Dooley sustained serious bodily injury when his vehicle was struck by another vehicle driven by Wilmer Phillips.  Dooley’s injuries exceeded the liability coverage provided by Phillips’ automobile insurance policy.  In light of this, Dooley argued that Phillips was an underinsured motorist within the meaning of Virginia Code Section 38.2-2206(B), and, as such, Dooley sought payment from his own insurance company, Hartford, based on the UM/UIM coverage provided in the 2008 policy.  Although the declarations section of the 2008 policy was silent with respect to UM/UIM coverage, this section expressly provided general liability coverage of $100,000 per person for each covered vehicle.
              Hartford acknowledge that it was obligated under Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(A) to provide UM/UIM coverage "equal" to the policy’s general liability limits.  However, Hartford argued that its policy limited UM/UIM coverage for each person to $100,000. 
               Thus, the parties’ dispute was over whether the anti-stacking clause prevented Dooley from stacking or combining the $100,000 per person limit under his UM/UIM coverage for each of his three insured vehicles. 

               Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit concluded that because Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(A) mandates that UM/UIM coverage "shall equal" the general liability coverage, by operation of law Dooley was provided an equal amount of UM/UIM coverage under his policy.  Therefore, the anti-stacking provision in Dooley’s policy unambiguously prohibits stacking of UM/UIM coverage.  Thus, the district court did not err when it granted summary judgment in favor of Hartford.  

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