Nationwide v. Lankford – Uninsured Motorist Coverage North Carolina
Defendant, Walter Scott Lankford (Scott), a minor, was struck by an uninsured motorist, Nancy B. Oldham (Oldham). At the time of the accident, both Lankford and his parents had automobile insurance policies with the plaintiff, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company(Nationwide).
Walter Scott Lankford brought a suit against the uninsured driver, Oldham. His parents, Steve and Linda Lankford, also brought a suit against Oldham. Nationwide brought this action, seeking declaratory relief since the parent’s policy did not provide coverage for claims arising out of the collision, and also asserted that $50,000.00 was the maximum amount of recovery for Lankford. The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment, and the court granted the plaintiff’s motion denying the parent’s claim against their separate policy, and also restraining them from seeking any amounts in excess of the $50,000.00 policy limit. It is from this order that the defendants appealed.
At trial, the facts tended to show that Scott was driving a 1984 Chevrolet Camaro, when he was struck head on by Oldham, who was driving a 1983 Dodge. Oldham, the at-fault driver who crossed the center line in the accident, did not have any automobile liability insurance at the time of the incident. Lankford’s medical expenses, for injuries arising out of the collision, totaled $19,229.41.
Nationwide had issued two separate policies to the Lankford family, one for Walter Scott Lankford, the minor, which covered the Camaro he was driving at the time of the accident, and also one for his parents, Steve and Linda Lankford, which covered two other vehicles not involved in the collision. Both of the policies provided a UM (uninsured motorist) coverage of $50,000.00 per person and $100,000.00 per accident.
Two separate civil actions against the driver, Oldham, were brought. The action by the parents, Steve and Linda, sought to recover expenses for Scott’s medical care. The other action was brought on Lankford’s behalf by his guardian ad litem, and included claims of recovery for permanent physical injuries, scarring, pain and suffering, and emotional distress. In response, Nationwide filed an action seeking declaratory relief on the amounts it was obligated to cover under the policy.
The defendant’s argument on appeal centers on the two separate claims against Nationwide. The parents were seeking coverage under their own policy, while the minor Lankford was claiming damages under his own separate insurance policy. Thus, this matter is neither an intrapolicy nor an interpolicy stacking case. An intrapolicy stacking case involves aggregating the limits for different vehicles insured under a single policy, while interpolicy stacking involves aggregating the limits of coverage under two or more insurance policies. Mitchell v. Nationwide Insurance Co., 110 N.C. App. 16 (1993). Here, we are looking more specifically at the law concerning uninsured motorist (UM) coverage. The relevant North Carolina statute provides:
“No policy of bodily injury liability insurance… shall be delivered or issued for delivery in this State with respect to any motor vehicle registered…in this State unless coverage is provided therein or supplemental thereto… for the protection of persons insured thereunder who are legally entitled to recover damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles… because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting therefrom…
For purposes of this section “persons insured” means the named insured and, while resident of the same household, the spouse of any named insured and relatives of either, while in a motor vehicle or otherwise, and any person who uses with the consent, expressed or implied, of the named insured, the motor vehicle to which the policy applies and a guest in the motor vehicle to which the policy applies or the personal representative of any of the above or any other person or persons in lawful possession of the motor vehicle.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-279.21(b)(1993).
Essentially, the parents argued that it was clear that a tort recovery against Oldham would be difficult or impossible to collect. As such, the parents sought to be indemnified for the costs of present and future expenses related to Scott’s medical care.
The North Carolina Supreme Court has allowed parents to bring an independent cause of action for recovery of medical expenses because when an unemancipated minor is injured by the another person’s negligence, two claims arise: (1) the minor’s claim for their losses; and (2) the parent’s claim for the loss of child’s services during minority, and reasonably necessary medical expenses for treatment of the minor’s injuries.
The Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the trial court’s decision to enter summary judgment on behalf of Nationwide. The Court noted that there was no language in the policy which was to be construed to prevent recovery by the parents for their minor child, under their own insurance policy, since they too suffered loss at the hand of an uninsured motorist.
Key Takeaways of this Case
Every insured driver should be familiar with the terms of their auto insurance policy. Understanding the language of your policy can be important in a case with disputes like this one. In this case, because the contract that Steve and Linda signed with Nationwide did not prevent a recovery on behalf of their minor child, the Court found error in granting Nationwide summary judgment. Thus, when purchasing insurance for your own vehicle, you should carefully read and understand the terms of the insurance policy, so you know what is covered, especially in the event of an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist.