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Robert C. Williams v. Geico Government Employees Insurance Company

October 19, 2011


Appeal from the Order of the Superior Court entered December 29, 2008 at No. 931 WDA 2007, affirming the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County, entered May 9, 2007 at Nos. 10995 of 2006 and 11130 of 2006.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Madame Justice Orie Melvin


ARGUED: April 14, 2010


This is a discretionary appeal from the December 29, 2008 Superior Court order, which affirmed the trial court's grant of summary judgment to Appellee, GEICO Government Employees Insurance Company ("GEICO"). We granted review to address whether the "regular-use" exclusion contained in a personal automobile insurance policy is valid to preclude payment of underinsured motorist ("UIM") benefits to a police officer injured in the course of employment while operating a police vehicle for which the officer did not have the ability to obtain UIM coverage. In light of our precedent and in consideration of Pennsylvania's Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law ("MVFRL"),*fn1 we affirm.

The facts are undisputed. Appellant Robert C. Williams ("Williams") has been a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper since 1994. On June 23, 2004, Williams was seriously injured in an automobile accident while operating a Ford Crown Victoria owned and maintained by the Pennsylvania State Police.*fn2 Williams has been unable to return to his duties due to his injuries.

At the time of the accident, Williams maintained a personal automobile insurance policy with GEICO. Appellant's policy included UIM coverage with limits of $50,000 per person and $100,000 per accident with stacking available. Williams sought to recover UIM benefits from GEICO for the June 23, 2004 accident. GEICO denied coverage, citing the regular-use exclusion contained in the policy, which provided:

When This Coverage Does Not Apply:

9. When using a motor vehicle furnished for the regular use of you, your spouse, or a relative who resides in your household, which is not insured under this policy.

GEICO's Motion for Summary Judgment and Brief in Support, 1/26/07, Ex. C at 19.

On May 19, 2006, Appellant instituted a civil action*fn3 against Joseph Stickley, the driver of the other vehicle. On July 21, 2006, Williams filed a petition to compel UIM arbitration against GEICO. GEICO answered the petition and filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a judicial determination that its policy did not cover the accident because of the regular-use exclusion.

GEICO filed a motion for summary judgment in the declaratory judgment action, which the trial court consolidated with the petition to compel arbitration. Thereafter, the trial court granted GEICO's motion for summary judgment, finding that the regular-use exclusion precluded Appellant's recovery. The court also denied Appellant's petition to compel arbitration. Williams filed a timely appeal to the Superior Court.

The Superior Court affirmed in an unpublished memorandum. Williams v. GEICO Government Employees Ins. Co., No. 931 WDA 2007 (Pa. Super. December 29, 2008) (unpublished memorandum). The court found that it was bound by a prior panel decision in Brink v. Erie Ins. Group, 940 A.2d 528 (Pa. Super. 2008), in which the Superior Court held that a Swatara Township police officer could not recover UIM benefits under his personal automobile policy for injuries sustained in an accident that occurred in the course and scope of his employment because of the regular-use exclusion.*fn4 The Superior Court concluded that Brink was directly on point and found that the regular-use exclusion was not against public policy applied to a police officer injured while driving a police vehicle in the line of duty.

This Court granted Appellant's petition for allowance of appeal, limited to whether public policy requires permitting a police officer to recover UIM benefits under his personal automobile insurance policy, when the recovery would be otherwise precluded by the policy's "regular use" exclusion.*fn5 Williams presently argues that because of the unique factual circumstances and challenges he faces as a Pennsylvania state trooper, his insurer should provide him with UIM coverage despite the unambiguous policy exclusion because Pennsylvania has a strong public policy of protecting police officers and other first responders such that they are entitled to special treatment. Consistent with that view, Williams submits that the factual distinctions between himself and the insured in Burstein are sufficient to require a different outcome.*fn6 Williams further argues that the exclusion violates the plain language of the MVFRL because it excludes UIM coverage without a written rejection as required by 75 Pa.C.S. § 1731. In advancing his position, Appellant relies heavily on Mr. Justice Saylor's dissenting opinion in Burstein.

The Pennsylvania Association for Justice ("PAJ")*fn7 filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Appellant. PAJ argues that the regular-use exclusion should never apply to any employee operating an employer's fleet vehicle to which the employee is not regularly assigned. In support of its position, PAJ relies on published and unpublished federal decisions. Similarly, the Pennsylvania State Trooper's Association ("PSTA") filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Trooper Williams, emphasizing the policy considerations that favor extending private UIM benefits to police officers injured in motor vehicle accidents that occur in the line of duty. The PSTA asserts that citizens of this Commonwealth recognize the important role police officers play in protecting the public and, in turn, unanimously agree that their rights should be safeguarded.

GEICO responds that we have previously approved of the regular-use exclusion in similar circumstances and that no valid reason exists to invalidate the exclusion generally. GEICO also contends that although the legislature has seen fit to afford police officers and other first responders special protections under the law, it specifically decided not to require their private insurers to provide UIM coverage while first responders operate their work vehicles. Therefore, GEICO submits, we should not infringe on the legislature's prerogative to enact such a policy. Finally, GEICO argues that we previously rejected Appellant's broad reading of the MVFRL in Burstein.

The Pennsylvania Defense Institute ("PDI") submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of GEICO. PDI suggests that Pennsylvania law has consistently recognized the regular-use exclusion and its applicability to the instant facts beginning with Burstein and continuing through Superior Court opinions including Brink. PDI also contends that Trooper Williams' status as a police officer should not exempt him from existing law. PDI concedes, however, that the legislature retains the prerogative to allow first responders to recover benefits from their private automobile insurance policies if injured in a work vehicle. Finally, PDI refutes Appellant's argument regarding the conflict between the exclusion and the MVFRL, noting that a plethora of decisions by this Court and the Superior Court have all recognized the validity of exclusions to the mandatory offering of UIM coverage.

In the instant case, we must determine whether the regular-use exclusion, as applied to a state trooper, is void as against a public policy that favors protecting first responders. The issue presented is purely legal; thus our scope of review is plenary and our standard of review is de novo. Generette v. Donegal Mut. Ins. Co., 957 A.2d 1180, 1189 (Pa. 2008).

In construing a policy of insurance, we are required to give plain meaning to a clear and unambiguous contract provision unless such provision violates a clearly expressed public policy. Burstein, 809 A.2d at 206 (citing Eichelman v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 711 A.2d 1006, 1008 (Pa. 1998)); Prudential Prop. and Cas. Ins. Co. v. Colbert, 813 A.2d 747, 750 (Pa. 2002) (same). Here, Appellant concedes that the policy language is unambiguous, thereby challenging the exclusion solely on the grounds of public policy. We consistently have been reluctant to invalidate a contractual provision due to public policy concerns. In Eichelman, we stated:

Generally, a clear and unambiguous contract provision must be given its plain meaning unless to do so would be contrary to a clearly expressed public policy. When examining whether a contract violates public policy, this Court is mindful that public policy is more than a vague goal which may be used to circumvent the plain meaning of the contract. As this Court has stated:

Public policy is to be ascertained by reference to the laws and legal precedents and not from general considerations of supposed public interest. As the term "public policy" is vague, there must be found definite indications in the law of the sovereignty to justify the invalidation of a contract as contrary to that policy[.] ... Only dominant public policy would justify such action. In the absence of a plain indication of that policy through long governmental practice or statutory enactments, or of violations of obvious ethical or moral standards, the Court should not assume to declare contracts ... contrary to public policy. The courts must be content to await legislative action.

This Court has further elaborated that:

It is only when a given policy is so obviously for or against the public health, safety, morals or welfare that there is a virtual unanimity of opinion in regard to it, that a court may constitute itself the voice of the community in so declaring [that the contract is against public policy].

Eichelman, 711 A.2d at 1008 (internal citations omitted). Therefore, Appellant must meet a high burden to invalidate a contractual provision due to a conflict with public policy.

In Eichelman, we also addressed the general policy underlying underinsured motorist coverage. We stated:

[U]nderinsured motorist coverage serves the purpose of protecting innocent victims from underinsured motorists who cannot adequately compensate the victims for their injuries. That purpose, however, does not rise to the level of public policy overriding every other consideration of contract construction. As this Court has stated, "there is a correlation between premiums paid by the insured and the coverage the claimant should reasonably expect to receive." Hall v. Amica Mut. Ins. Co., 538 Pa. 337, 349, 648 A.2d 755, 761 (Pa. 2004).

Id. at 1010.

Moreover, in his Concurring and Dissenting Opinion in Colbert, then-Justice, nowMr. Chief Justice Castille noted:

The overriding concern powering the decisions in Burstein, Eichelman, and the earlier cases is to ensure that both insurer and insured receive the benefit of what is statutorily required and contractually agreed-upon (consistently with statutory requirements) and nothing more. As this Court recognized in Eichelman, an insured should not be ...

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