Virginia High Court: Auto Maintenance Exclusion Means What it Said

May 20, 2019

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that an insurer doesn’t have to pay for injuries to a customer who was injured by tire that exploded while it was inflated, and handed business owners another reason not to allow customers in the garage where mechanics work.

In a unanimous decision, the high court on Thursday overturned a circuit court decision and found that Doswell Truck Stop’s commercial liability policy specifically excluded injuries caused by maintenance of any “auto.”

The Supreme Court rejected the trial court’s finding that the term “maintenance” in the policy’s auto exclusion was ambiguous. The court said it makes no difference that an employee of the truck stop had invited plaintiff James T. Smith into his work area.

Smith’s complaint “specifically alleges that his injury occurred when a DTS employee ‘over inflated the tire so as to cause the tire to explode,'” the opinion states. “Thus, regardless of whether allowing Smith into a dangerous location was a proximate cause of his injuries, the fact remains that a significant causal connection exists between the maintenance on the tire and Smith’s injuries.”

The case is James River Insurance Co. v. Doswell Truck Stop, LLC.

Smith sued James River in June 2016, alleging he was injured after a tire exploded, even though the tire was properly secured in a safety cage. An employee had invited him into the garage he said.

DTS filed a claim with James River, but the carrier denied coverage, citing the auto exclusion. James River filed a declaratory action against the truck stop, seeking a determination on whether Smith’s injury was covered.

The trial court found that the accident was covered, agreeing with the truck stop’s argument that the term “maintenance” did not necessarily mean a regular repair operation, it could also mean a possessory interest other than ownership or use. The trial court also adopted the truck stop’s alternative argument that if the injury was excluded by the auto exclusion, the accident was still covered under a separate provision of the policy that provided premises liability.

The Supreme Court said the issue really wasn’t that complicated. Interpreting the exclusion to mean that “maintenance” referred to a possessory interest makes no sense, the court said. Also, the premises liability provision of the policy also excluded any bodily injury caused by auto maintenance.

The Supreme Court also reversed the trial court’s order that James River pay the truck stop’s litigation costs.

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