By Cory Bilton
- Court: Virginia Supreme Court
- Date of Decision: 4/16/15
- Opinion by: Millette
Vu Vo and Christopher Bartolomucci were involved in a vehicle collision. Vu filed suit against Christopher, who was a partner at the law firm of Hogan Lovells. Christopher’s personal insurance policy provided only $100,000 in coverage, which was insufficient to satisfy the damage he caused to Vu. Therefore, Christopher sought excess coverage from Hogan Lovells’ Federal Insurance policy. Federal Insurance denied that the policy provided coverage for Christopher’s collision.
A. Whether the Federal Insurance policy automatically provided excess liability coverage unrestricted by any other requirements of the policy?
B. Whether the Federal Insurance policy provided coverage because Bartolomucci was a “named insured”?
C. Whether the Federal Insurance policy provided coverage because the policy language is ambiguous?
D. Whether the Federal Insurance policy provided coverage because Bartolomucci’s use of his vehicle fell within the scope of the policy?
A. The policy does not provide automatic excess coverage for Bartolomucci, because the policy limits the automatic excess coverage to “covered vehicles” only. Bartolomucci’s vehicle was not a covered vehicle.
B. Hogan Lovells was the only “named insured.” Bartolomucci may have been an insured, but he was not a “named insured.”
C. The phrase “your business or your personal affairs” is not ambiguous when the “your” refers to a business entity. When used in this type of contract, “business affairs” refer to an entity’s income-producing acitivities and “personal affairs” refer to an entity’s non-income-producing activities.
D. Even though the policy does cover partners’ vehicles while used for Hogan Lovells’ “business or personal affairs”, Bartolomucci was not using his vehicle for such purposes at the time of the collision. He was commuting to work. He was not billing his time, taking business calls, or being paid by Hogan Lovells for that time.
Injury Law Around the Beltway Commentary:
I think the court had to reach this conclusion, regardless of the reasons the opinion provides. It is probably reasonable to think that Federal Insurance did not believe it was providing excess insurance to Hogan Lovells’s partners off the clock (although, for most lawyers the line between “on the clock” and “off the clock” is very faint). But even more unsettling, imagine the legal earthquake that would result if the court had ruled the opposite: that commuting to work was a business affair? Would commuting to work then be covered by workers comp? Would everything a lawyer does be considered a business affair? So Bartolomucci was a forgone conclusion.
However, some finer points of the path to reach the conclusion seem strange to me. One specific line is: “Contract language is not ambiguous simply because the parties or courts in different jurisdictions disagree about how to understand the language.” Now, it doesn’t surprise me that parties can disagree on contract interpretation. And I agree that if party-disagreement counted as a sign of ambiguity, then every contract dispute in court would involve ambiguity.
But if courts disagree, that seems like a sign of ambiguity. Bartolomucci may mean to say, “When we disagree with decisions from courts in other jurisdictions, we don’t really care what they say.” That statement is almost true by definition, because the Virginia Supreme Court does not have to consider the opinions of other courts for the most part. The opinion may also mean to say, “We count disagreement between courts as a sign of ambiguity, but not conclusive of ambiguity all by itself.” But as it is used in Bartolomucci, it strikes me as a dismissive statement; the court is not even considering conflicting opinions from other jurisdictions as a sign of ambiguity. To me, this is an overstatement, because contract language is ambiguous precisely “when it may be understood in more than one way or when it refers to two or more things at the same time.”
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