Insurance Law Developments

With the potential addition of autonomous cars and trucks to commercial fleets, commercial insureds should reassess coverage under their commercial auto, products liability, and cyber insurance policies. Automation, particularly the move toward fully autonomous vehicles, raises new coverage questions with new risk exposures for insureds and new opportunities for insurers.

This post is the first in a series examining potential coverage issues under different lines of coverage. We begin here with commercial auto insurance policies. Future posts will examine products liability and cyber insurance policies.

ISO Commercial Auto Form

Many commercial insureds’ auto policies incorporate the Business Auto Coverage Form (CA 00 01 10 13) (“Commercial Auto Form”) promulgated by the Insurance Services Office, Inc. (ISO).  The Commercial Auto Form provides coverage for “bodily injury” and “property damage” caused by an “accident” and “resulting from the ownership, maintenance or use of a covered ‘auto.’”  Although numerous cases have interpreted the scope of this coverage in cases involving vehicles other than cars and trucks, such as in accidents involving mopeds, 4x4s, riding lawnmowers, and other vehicles, courts have not yet determined whether this coverage extends to accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous Vehicle Classifications

In a sense, today’s cars and trucks all offer some autonomous features. Some features, such as cruise control or self-parking, can operate independently once engaged by a driver. Only highly automated and fully automated vehicles can operate without driver control, however.

In its current operating guidance for autonomous vehicles — Automated Driving Systems 2.0:  A VISION FOR SAFETY, released in September 2017 (Voluntary Guidance) — the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) categorized autonomous vehicles using the International Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) classification of autonomous vehicles levels between Level 0 and Level 5:

SAE Automation Levels
Source: NHTSA, Automated Driving Systems 2.0: A Vision for Safety.

NHTSA’s Voluntary Guidance describe vehicles that incorporate SAE automation Levels 3 through 5 as “Automated Driving Systems” (ADSs). Level 3 Conditional Automation ADSs require drivers to monitor and take control when necessary. Level 4 High Automation vehicles can be driven by a human, but are self-driving and do not require a driver. Level 5 Full Automation vehicles can perform all driving functions under all conditions. Level 5 vehicles include those vehicles with driver controls, as well as vehicles without driver controls, for example vehicles that lack a steering wheel or pedals. Level 5 vehicles without driver controls could incorporate seating spaces designed for conversation or work spaces with tables – but not controls that permit human occupants to assume any driving function. Let’s call these Level 5 vehicles “Personal Mobility Units” or “Level 52” (Level 5 Squared) vehicles.

Are Personal Mobility Units Considered “Autos” under the Business Auto Coverage Form?

ISO’s Commercial Auto Coverage Form identifies “autos” by numerical symbols 1-9, and 19.  Each insurance policy’s declarations page will identify the insured “autos” using those symbols.

Symbol 1 includes “Any ‘auto’” while symbols 2-9 narrow the definition of “auto” to exclude certain categories. ISO also offers the Covered Auto Designation Symbol endorsement (CA 99 54 10 13), which allows insurers to designate Symbol 10 “autos” to meet their insureds’ specific needs.

Is a Level 52 vehicle a Symbol 1 auto (“Any ‘auto’”)?  That depends on the definition of “auto.”  The Commercial Auto Form defines an auto as “a land motor vehicle” or “any other land vehicle” governed by state insurance law:

“Auto” means:

  1. A land motor vehicle, “trailer” or semitrailer designed for travel on public roads; or
  2. Any other land vehicle that is subject to a compulsory or financial responsibility law or other motor vehicle insurance law where it is licensed or principally garaged.

But “auto” does not include “mobile equipment.” CA 00 01 10 13, Section V –Definitions B (page 10 of 12).

Turning to part 1 of the “auto” definition, is a Personal Mobility Unit a “land motor vehicle?”

Of course, no court has considered this question. Those courts that have construed this definition in other contexts have considered whether the vehicle included customarily required features, whether the vehicle “resembled” a vehicle designed for use on public roads, and whether the vehicle was required to be registered by state law.

So, a construction vehicle known as a “Georgia Buggy” was not an “auto” because it: (1) did not resemble an auto; (2) was operated from a platform using “hand controls affixed to bicycle­-like handlebars;” (3) lacked key components, such as a steering wheel, a windshield, a separated driving compartment, lights, turn signals, and mirrors; and (4) was not required to be registered by the state. Harlan v. United Fire and Casualty Company, 208 F. Supp. 3d 1168, 1172‑73 (D. Kan. 2016), appeal dismissed, No. 16-3310, 2017 WL 4863142 (10th Cir. Jan. 13, 2017).

A photograph submitted during the litigation surely shows that the buggy was not an auto:

Georgia Buggy Exhibit
Georgia Buggy Exhibit

Of course, a Level 52 vehicle might not “resemble an auto,” would not have any type of hand controls, and would lack some (but not all) key components, such as a steering wheel.

A crop sprayer that collided with a motorcycle was considered an “auto” under the same policy language because it was subject to compulsory insurance and financial responsibility laws, had four wheels, was self-propelled, had headlights, taillights, turn signal, and “other components similar to road‑ready vehicles.” Berkley Regional Specialty Ins. Co. v. Dowling Spray Service, 864 N.W.2d 505, 508 (S.D. 2015). Under this reasoning, a Personal Mobility Unit is an “auto.”

Turning to part 2 of the “auto” definition, is a Personal Mobility Unit “subject to a compulsory or financial responsibility law or other motor vehicle insurance law? Is it licensed? Is it “principally garaged” in any state?

All ADSs are self-propelled and, like other self-propelled vehicles, will be subject to compulsory insurance or financial laws in most states (with certain exceptions). For example, in Delaware, motor vehicles include all “self-propelled” vehicles except farm tractors, elective personal assistive mobility devices (electric two-wheeled vehicles for one person, limited to 15 miles per hour or less), and off‑highway vehicles. Del. Code Ann. tit. 21, § 101. In Michigan, industrial equipment, electric personal assistive mobility devices, electric patrol vehicles, electric carriages, and commercial quadricycles are not “motor vehicles.” Mich. Comp. Laws § 257.33. In California, self‑propelled wheelchairs, motorized tricycles, and motorized quadricycles are not motor vehicles if operated by a person who, by reason of physical disability, is otherwise unable to move about as a pedestrian. Cal. Veh. Code § 415. Under these and other regulatory regimes, all ADSs should be subject to existing compulsory insurance or financial laws in most states (pending any change in regulatory regimes to accommodate ADSs).

No state excludes autonomous vehicles from registration. An auto is generally licensed in the state where it is registered. At the time of registration, the state will issue the appropriate number of license plates, which the owner or registrant is then required to display. See, e.g., Cal. Veh. Code § 6700. A tractor-trailer that displayed Nebraska insurance plates was indisputably licensed in Nebraska, despite being registered in multiple locations under the International Registration Plan.  See Berg. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 319 F.Supp.2d 933, 938 (N.D. Iowa 2004). Thus, the proper question is not whether an ADS is licensed, but rather whether it is required to be registered, and if so, it will likely be licensed as well.

What about the location of a Personal Mobility Unit? A vehicle is generally “principally garaged” in the physical location where it is kept most of the time. A vehicle that is kept in a single location for four months was “principally garaged” in that location even though the owner did not intend to reside there permanently. Chalef v. Ryerson, 277 N.J. Super. 22, 28, 648 A.2d 1139, 1142 (App. Div. 1994). A vehicle was not “principally garaged” in Michigan because it was not kept in Michigan “most of the time.” Frasca v. United States, 702 F. Supp. 715, 718 (C.D. Ill. 1989). But a rental truck leased for a three-day period was “principally garaged” in Virginia, not Maryland where it was licensed and registered, because the leasee kept the truck at its Virginia facility during the lease period. Hall v. Travelers Cas. Ins. Co. of Am., No. 1:16-CV-00173 (GBL), 2016 WL 5420571, at *5 (E.D. Va. Sept. 27, 2016). If the manufacturer owns the autonomous vehicle and leases it to different individuals in different states, where will that vehicle be principally garaged, and will it be subject to a compulsory or financial responsibility law or other motor vehicle insurance law in that state?

Finally, “auto” excludes “mobile equipment.” “Mobile equipment” encompasses an array of land vehicles, from bulldozers to power cranes to air compressors to any vehicle “maintained primarily for purposes other than the transportation of persons or cargo.” By definition, any autonomous vehicle, including a Personal Mobility Unit, is used to transport people and cargo and therefore will not constitute “mobile equipment.” In addition, the Commercial Auto Coverage Form excludes from the definition of “mobile equipment” those “land vehicles that are subject to a compulsory or financial responsibility law or other motor vehicle insurance law where it is licensed or principally garaged.” Those land vehicles are “autos.” As discussed above, autonomous vehicles, including Level 52 vehicles, will likely satisfy this exception to the definition of “mobile equipment” and will be considered “autos.”

Does Teleoperation Affect Coverage?

As of April 2018, California mandates a remote operator for autonomous vehicles testing on public roads without drivers. Cal. Code Reg. § 227.38. Remote operators must: (1) have the appropriate driver’s license for the type of autonomous vehicle; (2) not be seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle; (3) engage and monitor the autonomous vehicle; and (4) be able to communicate with occupants in the vehicle by a communication link. The remote operator may also have the ability to “perform the dynamic driving task for the vehicle or cause the vehicle to achieve a minimal risk condition.”  Cal. Code. Reg. § 227.02(n).

At least one company will offer that remote control to assist with the testing and development of autonomous vehicles. Phantom Auto states that it provides a remote driver seated in a control room who can operate the vehicle remotely (described as “teleoperation”). Phantom Auto describes its services as “a teleoperation-as-a-service safety solution for all autonomous vehicles that includes an API [application program interface] for real time assistance and guidance, an in-vehicle low latency communication device, and a remote operator service.”  Phantom Auto enables a remote human operator to operate an autonomous vehicle when it encounters a scenario that it cannot handle on its own, allowing for optimally safe testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

The ISO Commercial Auto Form covers accidents “resulting from the ownership, maintenance or use of a covered ‘auto.’” Will insurers contend that an error in teleoperation does not “result from” the “ownership, maintenance or use of a covered ‘auto’” but instead “results from” remote operator negligence? Will they argue that other insurance policies should respond instead of a commercial auto policy?

We don’t yet know the answers to these questions, but insureds testing autonomous vehicles can determine the proper allocation of liability for remote operator error and tailor their policy language to address any liability. If teleoperation survives beyond the testing phase, all insureds using this service will need to assess the parties’ risk allocation and coverage options.

What about Exclusions?

As with the commercial liability policy, ISO’s Commercial Auto Form excludes coverage for “Expected or Intended Injury,” which it defines as “‘Bodily injury’ or ‘property damage’ expected or intended from the standpoint of the ‘insured.’” If the insured cannot operate the vehicle, can any circumstance arise that could arguably trigger this exclusion? At least from an operational standpoint, an insured could not expect or intend injury if the insured cannot operate the Personal Mobility Unit. Will insurers seize on allegedly defective maintenance rather than negligent operation to trigger this exclusion? Will they remove the exclusion as no longer applicable in an autonomous vehicle world? Only time will tell, but insureds and insurers alike should consider the impact of this exclusion.

What about Premium?

In February 2015, NHTSA reported that 94% of auto accidents are caused by human error.    Pundits predict that the frequency and severity of accidents will dramatically decline as autonomous vehicles become more prevalent (despite a messy intervening period when human drivers and partial and fully autonomous vehicles share the road). As frequency and severity falls, so does risk, thus potentially impacting premium. The complexity of autonomous vehicles may impact premium in the other direction, as early model autonomous vehicles will likely be extremely expensive to repair and replace. Insurers are no doubt (or should be) assessing autonomous vehicle’s potential impact on auto premium.

Where Next? Products Liability Insurance? Cyber Insurance?

Even as auto accident frequency and severity declines with increased automation, and premium eventually drops as repair costs normalize, commercial auto insurers may need to turn to other lines of coverage, such as products liability and cyber coverage, for revenue streams, and insureds may need to turn to these same policies for coverage for autonomous vehicles. We will discuss those policies in subsequent posts with a focus on Level 52 vehicles.

Can You Hear Me Now? Tenth Circuit Rejects Coverage for Telephone Consumer Protection Act ClaimsA recent Tenth Circuit decision undercut policyholder arguments that Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) claims are insurable under a standard CGL policy. Policyholders should take note of this decision but should not assume that all TCPA claims are necessarily uncovered.

On February 21, the Tenth Circuit affirmed a finding of no coverage on appeal from the District of Colorado. In Ace American Insurance Company v. Dish Network, LLC, the Tenth Circuit held there was no duty to defend Dish in a lawsuit alleging various violations of state and federal laws relating to telemarketing phone calls. The court held that statutory damages and injunctive relief sought under the TCPA were uninsurable penalties instead of insurable “damages” under the relevant liabilities policies. The court also rejected Dish’s argument that the TCPA’s provisions governing actual monetary loss qualified as a remedial provision that could be insured under Colorado law. Finally, the court rejected Dish’s argument that the underlying claims for equitable relief could constitute insurable damages.

Policyholders should take note of this case for several reasons:

  1. Rising TCPA Claims. TCPA claims continue to gain popularity on court dockets across the country. Insurers will undoubtedly lean on this case as a basis for denial of coverage in similar cases. That said, TCPA policyholders should not simply assume that all hope is lost. For example, the Tenth Circuit’s decision relies heavily on aspects of Colorado law that may not be controlling in other jurisdictions.
  2. Claims for Equitable Relief May Still Trigger Duty To Defend. This case is a good reminder of the importance of a detailed analysis relating to the particular damage allegations in an underlying lawsuit when considering the duty to defend. The Tenth Circuit did not shut the door on the possibility of a duty to defend claim seeking equitable relief. Instead, the decision is limited to the particular allegations in the underlying complaint.
  3. TCPA Exclusions Becoming More Common. The court noted that several later policies contained specific exclusion endorsements for TCPA claims. Policyholders that may face TCPA allegations should consider whether their current liability policies contain such exclusions and, if so, whether additional coverage may be necessary to protect against such future allegations.
  4. Some Coverage Arguments Not Fully Addressed. Unfortunately, the Tenth Circuit did not reach some of the other interesting coverage questions that could have played a role. For example, I would have been interested to see the court’s analysis of whether “bodily injury” or “property damage” was alleged in the underlying litigation.

This case is not the death knell for coverage for TCPA defendants, but it may prove a hurdle even in jurisdictions beyond Colorado. Companies that face this risk should consider their current coverage portfolio, particularly with respect to any exclusions that may expressly or implicitly apply to TCPA claims. In the event of a claim, companies should analyze each case independently, including consideration of choice of law and the particular policy provisions and allegations at issue.

SC Supreme Court Says Insurers Can’t Cloud Allocation of Covered and Non-Covered DamagesThe South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Harleysville Insurance Co. v. Heritage Communities, Inc., modified July 27, 2017, continues a trend of decisions aimed at preventing an insurer from acting in its own interest to the detriment of its insured when the insurer controls the defense of underlying claims against the insured. Although the far-ranging opinion in Harleysville tackles a number of important coverage issues, perhaps the most salient is a renewed emphasis on the insurer’s duty to inform its insured of the need to allocate damages in underlying litigation to differentiate between covered and non-covered losses in a jury award.

In Harleysville, the jury awarded $10.75 million in actual damages against a developer in two suits arising from defective condominium construction. These damages were based on the cost to repair defects, and included costs to replace faulty workmanship, as well as costs to repair damage to the condominium from water intrusion. The verdict did not distinguish between these costs. Because replacement of faulty workmanship was not covered under the developer’s liability insurance policies, in the ensuing coverage litigation, the insurer contended that it was not obliged to provide coverage for this portion of repairs. The court, however, found that the insurer lost the right to contest this issue when it failed to notify the policyholder of the need to allocate the verdict in the underlying suits.

The problem of parsing covered and non-covered losses in a verdict is not new. Since at least Duke v. Hoch, 468 F.2d 973 (5th Cir. 1972), courts have complained that it is virtually impossible to “determine the particular amount that happened to be in the jury’s mind” in subsequent coverage litigation. Where there was no effort in the underlying suit to determine the jury’s intent in making the award, assignment of the burden of proof between the insurer and policyholder is therefore potentially dispositive of the allocation. While it is typically the insured’s burden to show that damages fall within the coverage grant, a number of courts have recognized the inherent conflict of interest where the insurer controls the defense of the litigation but fails to obtain an allocated verdict. If the burden remained with the policyholder under these circumstances, the insurer could obtain a windfall from its own failure to clarify the composition of the award.

Some courts have responded to this problem by shifting the burden to allocate covered and non-covered losses from the insured to the insurer when the insurer fails to either obtain an allocation of the verdict in the underlying litigation or notify its insured of the need to do so. In Magnum Foods, Inc. v. Continental Casualty Co., 36 F.3d 1491 (10th Cir. 1994), the Tenth Circuit held that where the insurer controlled defense of the litigation but failed to request special interrogatories or a special verdict to allocate damages, it bore the burden of demonstrating that the basis of the award fell outside coverage. In Duke v. Hoch and Harleysville, the courts did not mandate that the insurer must itself seek an allocation, but found that the insurer must provide notice to the insured of the need for allocation in its reservation of rights. Harleysville found that the insurer’s blanket reservation of rights letter did not meet this standard, as it did not “inform the insureds that a conflict of interest may have existed or that they should protect their interests by requesting an appropriate verdict.” The insurer therefore lost the right to contest this issue and was required to cover damages for faulty workmanship that would otherwise have fallen outside of the policy.

Left unresolved by the opinion is precisely how, and by whom, the allocation of the verdict will be accomplished. In Duke v. Hoch, obtaining an allocated verdict would have been fairly simple, since the non-covered damages related to a particular claim against the insured; thus, the jury could have been asked to specify the portion of damages awarded on the basis of that claim. But in Harleysville, parsing out the covered and non-covered damages would have required specific findings as to which costs were required to replace the insured’s faulty work product, and which costs pertained to repairs for water intrusion. For the jury to make an informed decision on these issues, defense counsel would need to tailor the testimony of its witnesses, and possibly even modify its closing argument.

In a given case, the facts relevant to such allocation might well be contested between the insurer and the policyholder, and it is doubtful whether defense counsel retained by the insurer will be able to navigate this potential conflict of interest. Because Harleysville focused on the insurer’s duty to notify the policyholder of the need for an allocated verdict in its reservation of rights, insurers may argue that it is the policyholder’s responsibility to engage independent defense counsel if it wants to obtain such an allocation. But if the insured must pay for its own attorneys to handle the litigation, it has been deprived of a key benefit of coverage, namely the insurer’s duty to provide a defense. The policyholder could obtain independent counsel of its own choosing, and ask the insurer to reimburse reasonable fees. A policyholder, however, can expect the insurer to resist any arrangement under which it would pay for litigation expenses exceeding those of its regular insurance defense counsel, or for expenses incurred to present evidence adverse to the insurer’s own coverage position. As insurers modify their reservation of rights letters to meet the prescriptions in Harleysville and similar cases, policyholders must be vigilant for an insurer’s communication that allocation is needed, and insist that insurers discharge their defense obligations under the policy.