If Stephany Connelly had not been working, she may have been entitled to collect up to $350,000 in uninsured motorist benefits because of the injuries she suffered from a 2015 car crash.
But she was working at the time of the crash, and was a passenger in a co-worker’s vehicle. Because workers’ compensation is an exclusive remedy for work injuries, Connelly cannot pursue an uninsured motorist claim against her co-worker’s insurer or her own auto insurer, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled last week.
The high court reversed a Richland County judge and the Court of Appeals while interpreting, for the first time, the meaning of a provision within the state uninsured motorist statute. Both courts incorrectly decided that the automobile insurers’ policy language was “ambiguous” because they relied on court decisions from another state with different laws, the court said.
“Relying on other states’ interpretations of foreign law is of little use in determining and effectuating the legislative intent underlying our own UM statute,” the opinion says.
Connelly was injured on Feb. 24, 2015 while riding in a Jeep driven by co-worker Freya Trezona while within thescope of her employment with Apple One Employment Agency. She filed a claim with Old Dominion Insurance Co., which insured the Jeep’s owner, who is Trezona’s father. She also filed a claim with her own automobile insurer, Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance Co.
After the insurers denied the claims, Connelly and her husband, James, filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that coverage was owed for the accident. Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman ruled in the Connellys’ favor. The Court of Appeals affirmed the decision.
The insurers pointed to the language of their policies, which state they will pay only damages that the insured is “legally entitled to recover.” That language mirrors the wording of Section 38-77-150(A), which states that uninsured motorist insurers must pay damages that claimants are “legally entitled to recover.”
Both the trial and appellate courts found a split among courts that have heard similar cases, but concluded that an insured person is legally entitled to recover uninsured motorist benefits by establishing fault by the tortfeasor and the amount of damages. Both courts cited a West Virginia Supreme Court decision that reached the same conclusion.
The South Carolina Supreme Court, however, said the meaning of South Carolina law is clear. In order to be legally entitled to recover, a claimant must file a tort suit against a tortfeasor to establish liability and a court must award damages. Connelly did not sue Trezona and cannot sue under South Carolina law because co-workers are protected by workers’ compensation immunity, the opinion says. Likewise, she cannot collect uninsured motorist benefits from her own insurer unless she proves liability and damages by suing the tortfeasor.
The Supreme Court acknowledged its ruling causes some “disquiet,” but it said it has no choice but to interpret the law as written. The court said Connelly’s argument has “equitable appeal.”
But the court concluded that it must not “contort the plain meaning” of the statute.
“We decline the invitation to rewrite the statute or construe it in a manner manifestly at odds with its plain meaning,” the opinion says. “Connelly’s remedy in this instance is not with the courts, but with the legislature.”
John Kassel, a Columbia attorney who represented the Connelly’s, said he doesn’t believe the South Carolina Legislature intended such a “harsh result.”
“What the court is saying is the South Carolina legislative intent was to deny consumers who purchased uninsured motorist coverage (or underinsured coverage) the benefit of those coverages if they were injured by a co-employee,” Kassel said in an email. “The court recognized the unfairness of their ruling which leaves consumers without the protections they thought they had and paid for. But the court felt its hands were tied.”
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