Driver Lacked ‘Reasonable Belief’ He Was Entitled To Drive With Conditional License

May 3, 2022 / News / Writing and Speaking

By Don R. Sampen, published, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, May 3, 2022

The 1st District Appellate Court recently held that a “reasonable belief” exclusion in an automobile liability policy barred coverage for a 16-year-old driver involved in an accident while driving in violation of the conditions set forth in his conditional driver’s license.

The case is United Equitable Insurance Co. v. Calhoun, 2022 IL App (1st) 210525 (March 9). The insurer, UEI, was represented by the Llorens Law Group Ltd. of Chicago. Joseph L. Planera & Associates of Chicago represented the appellant, Andre Robinson-Dock, a passenger in the car at the time of the accident.

UEI issued the policy to Cicely Calhoun, the mother of the driver, Jadis Baker, both of whom were listed as insureds. Baker had been issued a graduated driver’s license by the State of Illinois a few weeks before the accident.

That license prohibited Baker from operating a motor vehicle with more than one passenger under the age of 20, excluding siblings and children of the driver. It also prohibited him from operating the vehicle with more than one passenger in the front seat and more passengers in the back seat than the number of available safety belts. 625 ILCS 5/60107(e).

The facts here showed that at the time of the accident Baker’s vehicle had five passengers, none of whom were siblings or children, more than one passenger in the front seat, and more passengers in the back seat than the number of safety belts.

Following the accident UEI brought this declaratory action seeking a determination that it owed no liability coverage based on exclusion (h) of the policy. Under that exclusion, the policy provided no liability coverage to “any person operating the owned automobile or a non-owned automobile without a reasonable belief that he or she is entitled to do so.”

Among others named as defendants were Robinson-Dock, an injured passenger who had brought a separate suit for personal injuries. Robinson-Dock admitted most of the basic facts but contended that he had the status of an “insured” and that, moreover, Baker had a “reasonable belief” that he was entitled to operate the vehicle at the time of the accident.

UEI eventually moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion. Robinson-Dock filed this appeal.

Analysis

In an opinion by Justice Margaret Stanton McBride, the 1st District affirmed. She initially turned to Founders Insurance Co. v. Munoz, 237 Ill. 2d 424 (2010), in support of the “reasonable belief” exclusion. Under that case, the term “entitled” as used in the exclusion is not ambiguous but is to be given its plain, ordinary and popular meaning.

While Founders involved an unlicensed driver, McBride wrote that the case was not limited to such drivers but applied generally to a driver’s right to drive the vehicle in question. In addition, she construed the term “entitled” to encompass both permission from the owner to use the vehicle, as well as the legal right to drive on public roadways.

McBride acknowledged that no Illinois case had considered whether driving outside the conditions of a graduated driver’s license implicated the “reasonable belief” exclusion. She concluded, however, that those conditions are, in fact, implicated, based in part on other cases enforcing the conditions in learner’s permits.

In this case, Baker could lawfully drive a vehicle only if he complied with the restrictions on his license. When he drove in violation of those conditions, McBride held that he could not have had a reasonable belief he was entitled to operate the vehicle.

She also rejected Robinson-Dock’s argument that the exclusion violated Illinois public policy concerns. Rather, she said, the public policy at issue here was explicitly set out by the Illinois legislature in the graduated licensing statute, which set forth the purpose of developing safe and mature driving habits for young, inexperienced drivers. See 625 ILCS 5/6-107(a).

Finally, McBride addressed Robinson-Dock’s argument that he was an insured under the policy. He contended he was an insured for purposes of the uninsured motorist coverage in the policy, and he therefore should be considered an insured for liability purposes as well.

McBride found, however, that regardless whether the term “insured” had the same or different meanings under the liability and uninsured motorist coverage parts, Robinson-Dock’s status under the liability coverage part was irrelevant. It was irrelevant presumably because no one had made a claim against him, and he was not denied liability coverage in any event.

Hence, the only issue before the court was liability coverage for Baker, the driver. And because he did not have a reasonable belief that he was entitled to drive the vehicle, summary judgment for UEI was proper. The trial court’s judgment therefore was affirmed.

Key Point

An auto liability policy’s exclusion of coverage where a driver lacks a “reasonable belief” that he or she is entitled to drive the vehicle, encompasses both permission to drive from the owner and a legal right to drive on public roadways.

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