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Tennessee Appeals Court Holds Passenger in Commercial Truck Accident Can Recover Under Insurance Policy
Posted by Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard, PLLC on March 26, 2015
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When you have been injured in an automobile accident, you expect the responsible insurance company to provide benefits. In many cases, however, the policy language may limit your recovery. In Miller v. Northland Insurance Company, the plaintiff was a commercial truck operator who was involved in a serious truck accident. In contrast to the majority of truck operator accidents, the plaintiff was actually a passenger in the truck while another driver was operating the vehicle.
The undisputed evidence presented to the trial court showed that the plaintiff and her co-worker were transporting a commercial load from Tennessee through New York and other destinations. The two employees were to share the driving responsibilities throughout the trip. At the time of the accident, the plaintiff was asleep in the passenger seat of the truck. As a result of the accident, the plaintiff suffered from catastrophic injuries.
Following the accident, the plaintiff sought insurance benefits under the motor carrier’s liability policy. However, the defendant insurance company denied her coverage. The plaintiff then brought legal action against the insurer, seeking coverage for her injuries and medical expenses.
The insurance policy in question contained a provision excluding coverage for injuries suffered by employees in the course of their employment. As such, the plaintiff sought to be classified as an independent contractor, which would allow her to receive benefits under the policy. The plaintiff also argued that she was not acting as an employee at the time of the accident since she was not driving the vehicle. The trial court held that the plaintiff was, in fact, an employee of the motor carrier, excluding her from coverage under the policy.
On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals examined applicable law as well as the policy language. The court noted that a number of cases were on point, holding that a co-driver qualified as an employee for purposes of insurance coverage. The court also looked to the definition of “employee” under federal regulations. Under the federal definition, an employee is someone who affects the safety of a commercial motor vehicle, including drivers, mechanics, or handlers. The federal definition also incorporates independent contractors in the definition of an employee. According to the appeals court, the plaintiff’s assertions that she was merely acting as an independent contractor nonetheless qualified her as an employee.
The appellate court held that its finding did not conflict with Tennessee law because the insurance policy did not provide a comprehensive definition of the term “employee,” and the contract contained an endorsement that declared compliance with federal interstate commerce and motor carrier laws. As such, the court affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding that, as an employee of the motor carrier, the plaintiff was not entitled to coverage under the insurance policy.
If you have suffered injuries and believe the insurance company is not fulfilling its responsibilities under your insurance policy, you may be entitled to legal recourse and damages. The Nashville car accident attorneys at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard are skilled in dealing with insurance companies to recover the damages to which you are entitled. To speak with one of our attorneys today, contact us online or call (615) 800-7096.
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