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Introduction

In a recent decision, the Ontario Court of Appeal has shed light on the applicable insurance coverage in cases where a person operates a vehicle without the owner’s permission or consent. The ruling in Burnham v. Co-operators General Insurance Company, 2023 ONCA 384, provides clarity on the interpretation of insurance policies and their coverage provisions in such situations. This blog summarizes the key details of the case and its implications.

Background:

The case involved Joshua Burnham, who was a passenger in a pickup truck when it collided with a transport truck, resulting in serious injuries to Burnham and the death of the pickup truck driver. It was reported that the pickup truck had been stolen shortly before the accident, but Burnham claimed he was unaware of its stolen status until after the incident. Burnham sought damages from the uninsured driver of the stolen vehicle and Co-operators General Insurance Company, the insurer of the pickup truck, under the uninsured automobile coverage provisions of the policy.

Co-operators denied liability, arguing that Burnham should have known that the driver was operating the vehicle without permission and that an exclusion clause in the policy precluded his claim for uninsured motorist coverage. The motion judge ruled in favor of Co-operators, stating that Burnham had no cause of action against the insurer due to the exclusion clause. Burnham appealed the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Key Interpretation and Findings:

The appeal centered around the interpretation of section 1.8.2 of the insurance policy, which included an exclusion entitled “Excluded Drivers and Driving Without Permission.” The court noted that this section appeared to exempt certain passengers who were unaware or had no reasonable knowledge that the vehicle they were traveling in had been driven without permission.

The central questions for the court were: which passengers were covered by this exemption, and whether Burnham fell into one of the exempted categories.

The court upheld the interpretation advanced by the Minister responsible for the Motor Vehicle Accident Fund, which distinguished between “the automobile” and “an automobile” in the policy. The Minister argued that the reference to “an automobile” meant that the policy protected occupants in any vehicle other than the one covered by the policy. This interpretation aligned with the 2010 amendments made to the policy, which aimed to increase coverage for innocent passengers in the insured vehicle who were unaware it had been stolen.

In its decision, the court emphasized the importance of interpreting insurance policies in their entire context, applying the principles of narrow interpretation of exclusions and granting insurance clauses a literal meaning in favor of the insured. The court also highlighted the legislative purpose of uninsured automobile coverage to internalize the costs of driving, ensuring payment by insurers rather than the Motor Vehicle Accident Claims Fund.

Implications:

The ruling by the Ontario Court of Appeal clarifies the interpretation of insurance policies in cases involving unauthorized vehicle use. Innocent passengers in stolen vehicles, who neither knew nor reasonably should have known about the theft, may now be exempt from exclusion clauses and be entitled to insurance coverage. This decision expands insurance coverage for uninsured vehicles and aligns with the overall legislative intent to decrease reliance on the Motor Vehicle Accident Claims Fund.

This significant ruling provides important guidance for both insurers and individuals involved in accidents where the vehicle was operated without permission. It underscores the need for careful interpretation of insurance policies and highlights the courts’ commitment to protecting the rights of innocent parties involved in such incidents.

Conclusion and Key Takeaways

It is important to note that each case will still be evaluated on its specific facts and circumstances, and legal advice should be sought to fully understand the implications for individual situations. Nevertheless, this ruling represents a step forward in ensuring fair and adequate insurance coverage for innocent victims of unauthorized vehicle use.

 

Author(s)

This content is not intended to provide legal advice or opinion as neither can be given without reference to specific events and situations. © 2021 Nelligan O’Brien Payne LLP.

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