Ga. Court of Appeals Allows for “Direct Action” Against Insurance Company Over 2014 Semi-Truck Accident

As a general rule, you cannot directly sue an insurance company for a personal injury caused by someone they insure. In other words, if you are in a car accident caused by a negligent driver, you cannot name that driver’s insurance company as a defendant. Such “direct action” is not permitted under Georgia law.

Daily Underwriters of America v. Williams

But there are exceptions. Georgia law includes two separate provisions that permit direct action against insurance companies that insure motor carriers, i.e. semi-trucks. In a recent decision, Daily Underwriters of America v. Williams, the Georgia Court of Appeals explained how these two provisions can be applied in practice.

This case is based on a July 2014 accident involving a tractor-trailer and a passenger car. The driver and passenger in the car (the plaintiffs) subsequently filed a personal injury lawsuit against the driver of the semi-truck, who also owned the vehicle through a limited liability company. The plaintiffs also named as a co-defendant the insurer of the semi-truck.

The plaintiffs alleged their direct action against the insurance company was authorized under the Georgia Motor Carrier Act (GMCA). The GMCA requires all motor carriers to file an insurance certificate with the state. The Act further states any person who has a personal injury claim against a motor carrier may “join” the insurer–i.e., name it as a co-defendant–in any civil lawsuit.

The insurance company, however, pointed out that the GMCA does not apply to “to purely interstate commerce nor to carriers exclusively engaged in interstate commerce.” That is to say, the GMCA only permits direct action against an insurance company where the semi-truck is engaged “exclusively in interstate commerce,” as opposed to transportation within the state of Georgia.

The plaintiffs argued that at the time the accident occurred, the semi-truck driver had just completed a delivery to Monroe, Georgia, and was returning to his home in Bainbridge, Georgia. That qualified his trip as “intrastate” commerce subject to the GMCA. The Court of Appeals disagreed. It noted the driver was actually completing a delivery from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Monroe. This was clearly an “interstate” trip; the fact the driver planned to return home after making the delivery “does not convert the purpose of the travel into an intrastate trip.”

So the Court of Appeals said the plaintiffs could not rely on the direct action provision of the GMCA. That said, there was a second statute the plaintiffs could use to sue the insurance company directly. This second statute contains language implementing a federal law, the Unified Carrier Registration Act, and provides that a person can file a direct action against a motor carrier regardless of whether the truck was engaged in inter- or intrastate commerce at the time.

The insurance company argued that this second provision, adopted in 2005, was “implicitly repealed” by the GMCA, which passed in 2012. The Court of Appeals, however, said “repeal by implication is not favored” in Georgia law. And in any event, the two laws represented “distinct” parts of Georgia’s code.

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