Cook County Record

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Appeals court: Insurer can exclude coverage for drunk, high drivers; Widow's claim for husband's death barred


By Cook County Record | Jul 1, 2019

ELGIN -- A widow, whose husband was killed in a crash caused by an intoxicated man driving a rented car, will not be able to sue the other man’s insurer, after a state appeals court said a judge was wrong to declare portion of the insurance policy excluding coverage for harm caused by intoxicated drivers was illegal and unenforceable.

The Illinois Second District Appellate Court reversed a judge's ruling in favor of the plaintiff who argued that the provision is unenforceable because it clashes with Illinois' public policy laws.

In an opinion authored by Justice Mary Seminara-Schostok, with justices Joe Birkett and Susan Hutchinson concurring, the appeals court found the inclusion of the supplementary provision relating to a driver operating a vehicle while intoxicated bars the plaintiff from claiming against the policy.

Plaintiff Barbara Crowley initially sued in DeKalb County Circuit Court as the special administrator of the estate of her late husband, Robert, who died following a traffic accident in June 2015. She sued Empire Fire and Marine Insurance, Enterprising Leasing and Enterprise Holdings, as well as the driver of the other car, Thomas Bruen.

The case centers on an exclusion in the supplemental insurance policy that Empire Fire and Marine Insurance Company issued to Thomas Bruen's brother, John, who was also covered by the policy.

"The exclusion applied if the insured was under the influence of alcohol or drugs," the decision said.

DeKalb County Judge William P. Brady agreed with the plaintiff that Empire was "obligated to provide coverage based on its insurance contract with John Bruen."

The plaintiffs had argued the intoxication exclusion was "void because it was contrary to Illinois public policy" governing insurance policies.

According to the background portion of the appellate decision, Thomas Bruen, while driving the rental car, was "involved in a motor vehicle accident that killed Robert Crowley and injured his wife Barbara Crowley."

Bruen had taken marijuana, cocaine and opiates prior to the accident, the decision said. He was charged and convicted of aggravated driving under the influence. His brother, John, had rented the 2015 Volkswagen Jetta from Enterprise and purchased full coverage insurance.

Barbara Crowley filed a person injury claim against Thomas Bruen, and later filed a complaint against Enteprise and Empire. She asked the court to rule that Empire must provide coverage for the claims against Bruen.

In August 2018, the trial court granted Crowley's motion for summary judgment. This was reversed in the appeals court opinion filed June 18.

Seminara-Schostok said case law and courts "use sparingly the power to declare a contractual provision void as against public policy."

She noted that a provision in an agreement cannot be declared void on public policy grounds unless it clearly runs afoul of the Illinois state constitution, state laws or the opinions of the courts.

"Such a determination depends upon the particular facts and circumstances of each case," Seminara-Schostok wrote.

She added that there is no Illinois statute that bars an intoxication exclusion in a supplemental insurance policy.

"We also reject Crowley’s argument that .... we should find the intoxication exclusion void as against public policy because enforcing the exclusion would 'work a hardship upon the general public and, at the same time, benefit the rental agency and/or its insurer'," Seminara-Schostok said.

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