Personal injury lawsuits, following car accidents, are very common. The defendant is usually the person or persons who were at fault in the wreck, or who were responsible for the vehicle that caused the wreck. But, what should you do if the person at fault is a relative? Clients have asked, “can I sue a family member in a car accident case?” You certainly can, but the real question is: will insurance coverage be available?
Coverage exclusion for family members
It is very common for auto insurance policies to contain an exclusion for family members or members of the same household. Depending on where you live, the court may find this type of exclusion clause to be valid or invalid. In fact, family exclusion clauses are determined to be either: (1) Entirely valid; (2) Entirely invalid; or (3) Invalid up to the statutory minimum limits of compulsory coverages. Each state has taken its own stand on the validity of family exclusion clauses.
Missouri’s law regarding family exclusion clauses
Missouri is one of the jurisdictions that follows the principle that a “household exclusion” is unenforceable up to the statutory liability limits, but valid as to coverage exceeding those amounts. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Ballmer, 899 S.W.2d 523 (Mo. 1995). Like many other states, Missouri has a Safety Responsibility Act, the purpose of which is to promote safe driving practices and require owners and operators of motor vehicles to be financially responsible to others for damages they cause. These jurisdictions hold that a policy’s family member exclusion is invalid only to the extent that it conflicts with the state’s Safety Responsibility Act, that is, to the statutorily imposed minimum limit of automobile liability insurance imposed by the act.
Arkansas finds the exclusions are valid
Many other jurisdictions find the family or household exclusions are valid in their entirety, despite the apparent conflict with mandatory vehicle coverage and state financial responsibility statutes. In Cook v. Wausau Underwriters Ins. Co., 772 S.W.2d 614 (Ark. 1989), a wife sued her husband for injuries she sustained in an auto accident in which she was the passenger. Although the exclusion would directly conflict with the state’s compulsory motor vehicle liability insurance law, the court in that case stated that the legislature “is presumed to be aware of our decisions.” In other words, the legislature specifically provided that the compulsory insurance law was not intended to affect the validity of any policy exclusions. The legislature could have overruled the longstanding exclusions, but it did not.
Review your insurance policy to determine your coverage
The most important thing to do, if this issue ever arises, is to read your insurance policy to determine if a family or household exclusion is included. If you have questions regarding the terms of your auto insurance policy, and whether or not any exclusions are valid in your state, contact your personal injury attorney for advice.
If you have questions regarding automobile accidents, or any other personal injury concerns, call the Cottrell Law Office at (888) 433-4861.
He is licensed to practice law in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas, eastern Arkansas, western Arkansas, and western Missouri. He was Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Crawford County, Kansas from 1987-1989.
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