Category: Automobile Accidents

Tort Liability of Owners/Operators of Commercial Motor Vehicles

Tort law is the branch of the legal system that deals with the liability of individuals or other legally recognized entities, such as corporations or governmental units, to compensate other persons for private injuries or wrongs not arising out of contractual relationships. The system of tort law, among other things, provides the underlying structure for the operation of those aspects of the business of motor vehicle insurance in the United States that relate to liability for loss or damage suffered by one party as a result of the ownership and operation of motor vehicles by other parties.

The potential tort liability of owners and operators of commercial motor vehicles implicates a number of unique legal issues. These range from some that are more obvious, such as the simple increase in the kinds and extent of risks of personal injury and property damage that arise from commercial vehicle use in contrast to the operation of private vehicles, the numbers of operators and numbers and types of vehicles involved in commercial activities, and the so-called “deep pockets” of business entities that make them more susceptible to having tort actions brought against them, to less immediately apparent matters such as the existence, in some jurisdictions, of a legal presumption, which would have to be affirmatively overcome by the persuasive evidence of a commercial vehicle owner, that the operator of a commercial vehicle is in fact the employee or agent of the owner at the time the vehicle is involved in an incident giving rise to potential tort liability.

For these and other reasons, the owners and operators of commercial motor vehicles normally seek to obtain sufficient amounts of insurance coverage, and the evaluation and payment of their tort claims, like those of private vehicle owners, are conducted under the motor vehicle insurance system. That system, like the entire business of insurance in the United States, has traditionally been regulated by the laws of the individual states rather than by a single unified body of federal law, and the answers to questions involving tort liability of commercial vehicle owners and operators and the insurance coverage on such tort claims will vary from state to state.

Personal Injury Protection Under No-Fault Automobile Coverage

Personal injury protection (“PIP”), also known as ”no-fault benefits” or first-party benefits, coverage is an extension of automobile insurance coverage. It pays, up to a certain amount, an insured’s health care expenses and other damages, like lost wages and income continuation benefits, due to an automobile accident regardless of who was at fault. Several no-fault automobile insurance states require drivers to carry PIP coverage. In some states, insurance companies are required to offer PIP coverage. Insureds can then purchase it, if they choose.

The theory behind personal injury protection coverage is to reduce the number of negligence accident cases involving minor injuries that are filed in the courts. By statute, an insured’s right to sue a person, who harmed the insured, is restricted to serious injury cases. Insureds without serious injuries are entitled to significant benefits under PIP that are designed to minimize the economic impact of the automobile accident and injury.

Personal injury protection coverage directly pays an insured’s bills for treatment of automobile accident-related injuries. It will pay the costs for doctors and other medical providers, hospitals, trauma centers, and necessary medical equipment. While PIP coverage provides valuable benefits, it has not always performed well. The goal of removing minor lawsuits from the courts has not been met because no-fault insureds can still sue if their claims are denied. Further, a high incident of fraudulent claims has been noted.

Personal injury protection coverage is only required by a limited number of states. The following states require PIP coverage: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, and Utah.

Conflict of Laws Issues in Motor Vehicle Insurance Disputes

Motor vehicles, by the nature of their mobility, freely move among the states. Accidents can occur in an insured’s home state or another state. The laws of the states can differ on how they interpret the terms of an insurance policy. Which law should be applied is the subject of rules for conflict-of-laws or choice-of-laws decisions.

The inclusion of a choice-of-law endorsement in an insurance policy is helpful to the insurance company and the insured. The endorsement can show that the matter was considered by the parties to the insurance policy and that it was their intention that the laws of a certain state govern the terms of it. The use of a choice-of-law endorsement does not guarantee that a court will enforce it. If the insurance policy endorsement conflicts with a state public policy, a court may choose to determine which law should be applied without considering the endorsement.

If there is no choice-of-law endorsement, courts will determine which law to apply by considering the conflict-of-law rules of the state in which the court is sitting. Some states will apply the laws of the state in which the insurance policy was made. Other states will evaluate the relationship of each state to be claim before it. Some factors that are used are the place of contracting, the place of the negotiation, the place of performance, the location of the subject matter, the place of incorporation of the insurance company and the insured, and the residence or domicile of the parties to the court action.

A choice-of-law rule to apply the law of the state with the most significant contacts to a lawsuit could lead to a decision that the law of the state in which the court is sitting. For instance, an action for benefits under an accidental death policy issued by a car rental franchisee to a renter was governed by state A, not state B. The renter was a resident of state A. The franchisee was a state A corporation. The claim arose from an accident in state A. The only contact with state B was the delivery of the master insurance policy to the corporate office of the car rental company, which was a national corporation.

Automobile Insurance Premiums

Insurance contracts, at their core, are papers that prove a promise by an insurance company to pay benefits under an insurance policy and the payment of money by an insured for that protection. The money paid by the insured is called a premium. The premium is made up of money paid by the insured to the insurance company to cover the insured risk and the administrative costs. Without the payment of a premium, no contract of insurance exists between the insurance company and the insured.

Most automobile insurance policies cover six-month periods. The insurance company will set a date by which the premium is due. Depending upon the agreement between the insurance company and the insured, the policy could go into effect before a premium is paid or the full premium must be prepaid before the insured is covered. Some insurance companies will even allow monthly payments of premiums. It is important to know which scenario applies. If no premium is paid, no contract of insurance exists. If a first installment of a premium was paid, but the second was not, an insurance company can cancel the automobile insurance policy for nonpayment of the premium.

The general rule is that an insured’s failure to pay premiums by the due date results in a lapse of coverage. If an insurance company cancels a policy for nonpayment of premiums, it can recover the premiums earned to the date of cancellation. Insurance protection will continue until the date of cancellation despite the fact that premiums had not been paid to that date.

The time to pay a premium can be extended by the insurance company or by a statute. The insurance company can provide the extension, called a grace period, in the policy, in a separate writing, or even in an oral statement. The grace period will keep the policy in full effect after the missed premium’s due date, if the insured makes the premium payment before the end of the grace period. An insurance broker or agent does not have authority to extend the time for an insured to pay a premium. However, a broker’s agreement to extend the payment time might be enforceable against an insurance company depending upon the principles of agency and the facts of the case.

Automobile “Rollover” Products Liability Cases

An automobile rollover accident is known as one of the most dangerous types of accidents that vehicle occupants can experience. When the rollover accident is not fatal, the resulting injuries are serious and disabling, with paralysis and traumatic brain injury commonly reported. Vehicle rollover litigation is very complex, even when the rollover involved a single car. A rollover accident is often the result of interactions among a driver’s action or non-action, the vehicle’s components, the roadway, and weather conditions. Many defective design actions have been litigated involving vehicle rollover accidents.

Of all vehicles, the sport utility vehicle has approximately three times more reported rollover accidents than other passenger vehicles. Sport utility vehicle (SUV) rollovers have been blamed on defective design. SUVs have high carriages and large frames. They have a dangerously high center of gravity and a narrow wheelbase that make them prone to rollover accidents. In the rollover, the vehicle literally flips over. The occupants are thrown about within the passenger compartment or thrown out of the vehicle.

In prosecuting and defending these types of accident cases, comparative accident statistics are offered in evidence. Plaintiffs want the statistics to show that the makers of SUVs had to know that their vehicles’ design made the SUVs prone to a significant risk of rollover accidents. Defendants want to show that any of the other factors in the rollover, like the driver’s actions, caused the accident.


Besides statistics, evidence showing that a vehicle was prone to rollover in actions against the designers and makers of SUVs and other vehicles can include videotapes, computer-generated simulations, and manufacturer’s advertising. The videotapes can show rollovers of the same vehicle. The advertising can show what the manufacturer anticipated as the driving public’s use of the vehicle. Injured SUV drivers and passengers have brought successful products liability cases based on the vehicle’s vulnerability to rollovers.