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Church’s Insurer Not Responsible for Accident Involving Pastor’s Wife

Many businesses and non-profit organizations have insurance policies that cover the negligent acts of their employees and agents. With respect to non-profits, such policies may also cover acts of unpaid volunteers working for the group. A federal judge in Valdosta recently considered how broadly to define “volunteer” in a case arising from a tragic automobile accident.

GuideOne Mutual Insurance Company v. Daniel

On Christmas Eve, 2009, a couple was traveling to see family when they got into an accident with another vehicle in Jeff Davis County. The husband was paralyzed from the navel down and suffered a host of additional serious injuries, including a concussion, six broken ribs, and lacerations to his spleen and liver. The couple subsequently filed a lawsuit in Georgia state court, alleging the second driver’s negligence caused the accident and his injuries.

The second driver was married to the pastor of a local Baptist church. The couple named the church as a defendant in their personal injury lawsuit, alleging the pastor’s wife “was an agent and/or employee of the Church” and acting within that capacity at the time of the accident. Accordingly, the couple also served the church’s insurance company, which provided a business auto policy.

The insurance company disclaimed coverage and filed a separate federal lawsuit against the couple. While the couple acknowledged the wife was not, in fact, an employee of the church, they maintained she was a “volunteer” covered under a separate endorsement contained in the policy. This endorsement said the insurer was liable for the negligent acts of “[a]nyone volunteering services to you…while using a covered ‘auto’ you do not own, lease, hire, rent or borrow in your business.”

The couple said this endorsement applied here because the pastor’s wife ran the church’s nursery as a volunteer. The insurance company replied she was not actually conducting any volunteer activities at the time of the accident—i.e., she was not traveling to or from the church. In response, the plaintiffs offered testimony from an insurance expert who said the volunteer endorsement was “ambiguous” by industry standards and should be interpreted to cover the pastor’s wife in this context.

On September 4, U.S. Senior District Judge Hugh Lawson granted summary judgment to the insurance company. He rejected the expert’s opinions regarding the interpretation of the volunteer rider, saying that was a matter for the court to decide for itself. And the court decided there was no ambiguity whatsoever in the insurance contract.

Under Georgia law, Judge Lawson explained, “liberal construction of an insurance policy cannot be used to create an ambiguity where none exists.” Here, the judge said the couple’s proposed interpretation of “volunteering services” would render the insurer liable for all accidents involving “any member of the Church who at any given time volunteered in the nursery, sang in the choir, taught Sunday School, or engaged in any other service to the Church under any and all circumstances.” Judge Lawson said that reading was “unreasonable” and not supported by either the insurance policy or Georgia law.