Named Driver Exclusion in Commerical Policies in Maryland

The Maryland Court of Appeals issued its opinion this week in Harleysville Mutual Ins. Co. v. Zelinski. This question addressed was whether a named driver exclusion endorsement was valid for a commercial truck insurance policy. The case stems from a head-on truck accident in Cecil County in 2000. A jury awarded the victims, a woman and her son, $1.7 million. Big verdict, particularly for that county.

The truck driver was the son of the owners of a septic service company. Apparently a young man, he managed to collect 18 points on his Maryland driving record, most of which arose from a conviction for driving under the influence and a conviction for exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 MPH. His parents knew of his driving record and soon, so did Harleysville Insurance.

Acting pursuant to the endorsement in the policy, Harleysville offered the company’s owners a chance to either cancel their policy or kick their son off the policy. They chose to accept the endorsement. The son obtained insurance to drive the truck in question through the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund.

The question the case addressed is whether the endorsement that made the truck driver’s parents chose between canceling the policy or excluding their son is contrary to, and therefore impermissible, under Maryland law.

After the jury’s verdict against the truck driver, Harleysville Insurance’s attorneys sought and received a ruling from that their insurance policy’s exclusion was valid. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals held that the circuit court erred because the legislature did not approve a named driver exclusion for commercial policies.

But our high court unanimously reversed, finding that the legislative history of the named driver exclusion contains nothing to indicate that it cannot apply to commercial policies.

I feel awful that these victims will now not be able to enforce their verdict. Most likely, their attorney will only be able to collect the truck driver’s $20,000 Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund policy. But had the Court of Special Appeals’ verdict become the law, small businesses that employed drivers with bad records would have only two options: fire those employees or go without insurance. Because most small companies will not fire all employees with bad driving records, it would leave too many personal injury victims without any insurance at all . This would be a bad outcome for many victims. Accordingly, while I regret the result in this tragic truck accident case, I think it may be the correct ruling.

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  • Steve

    Tough for the plaintiff’s lawyer and the victims of this accident. I could not believe $1.7 in Cecil County. But I agree with you that it is probably the right result.

  • Tony

    Cecil County juries routinely return high verdicts. People who aren’t familiar with the county are fooled by its rural character. Harford county is just the opposite — I recall a judge saying once that it’s nearly malpractice for the run-of-the-mill soft tissue injury plaintiff to ask for a jury in Harford county.

  • Steve

    Tony, I’m sure you are right. Baltimore lawyers I think assume that every jurisdiction outside of Baltimore (and P.G. County of course) are giving low verdicts. Like you say, fulled by its rural character. In Baltimore County, where I practice, it is arguably malpractice for the plaintiff’s lawyer to ask for a jury (but I still do).

  • Ron Miller

    Tony, I do not have a lot of information on Cecil County verdicts besides the few verdicts I see in Metro Verdicts Monthly ( a great publication for Maryland lawyers). Do you have any data that you can point to on Cecil County verdicts? I looked around a bit, I found a $2.1 million verdict against a boys’ home last year but did not find a lot of other verdicts.

    If you know of anything, let me know and I will do a blog post on it.

    Thank you and Steve for your comments on this post.

    Ron Miller

  • Tony

    Unfortunately, I have only anecdotal information from my time as a defense lawyer with trials/arbitrations in Cecil (from 1997-2003). Verdicts on soft tissue cases were in the range of 8 – 10x specials, often higher. If you ask around the defense bar for experiences in Cecil county, I think you’ll hear that defense verdicts, or modest verdicts, are rare. I know I took my lumps in Cecil.

    By the same token, I was 5-0 in Harford during the same period — like shooting fish in a barrel. Judge Carr, who ran settlement conferences in Harford county at that time, knew that his biggest challenge was to push defense lawyers off of their insistence on trial.

    Thanks for the blog, btw. I wish these resources were around when I handled tort cases.

  • Ron Miller

    Thanks for your comments and your kind comments about the blog, Tony. Please keep the comments coming, so far it is just you, Steve, and Mike but the blog has only allowed for comments in the past two weeks.

    I’m going to keep looking for information on Cecil County verdicts. Of course, I got my Metro Monthly Verdicts today (the subject of an upcoming post) but their were again no Cecil County cases. Also, do you have any comments on Cecil County District Court?

  • Tom Sova

    I am somewhat suprised by the large Cecil Co. verdict. I am clerking for Judge Plitt of Harford Co.. It is true that the verdicts here in Harford County are laughable, however, I speak with many attorneys on a daily basis that routinely practice in both Cecil and Harford Counties and they all say that Cecil is not the place to make a living as a Plaintiff’s atty.

    By the way, the largest verdict I have seen in Harford County was 40K for what I thought was a serious injury.

  • Tony

    I don’t think you can generalize about district courts even to the limited degree one can about juries. District court outcome can depend entirely on who’s presiding. However, for whatever reason, my impression is that the district court tend to lean contrary to the juries in a given jurisdiction. For example, certain judges on the district court for Baltimore County (where jury verdicts can be tight) are notorious — from the defense perspective — for handing out money. On the other hand, the district bench in Baltimore City (where jury verdicts are more generous) is conservative with verdicts. I don’t have enough experience to say one way or another about district court in Cecil or Harford counties.

    Writing and reading about this stuff makes me a little wistful about the tort defense days. Perhaps I’ll be back to it one day (not for the whole of my practice, I hope).

  • Ron Miller

    I have never heard it phrased that way, Tony (lean contrary to the juries). But this is exactly right in Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Howard County, and, arguably Anne Arundel County. Prince George’s County seems to be one true exception to the rule: both courts are relatively favorable to personal injury plaintiffs.

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