A woman designated as a "principal driver" on her fiance’s insurance policy was not a "named insured" under that policy, the state Superior Court has ruled, clearing the way for the woman to pursue a third-party tort claim unfettered by the policy’s limited tort limitations.

In so holding, the unanimous three-judge panel, in reversing a York County judge, ruled plaintiff Sally McWeeney’s status as a permissive driver under her fiance’s policy did not render her an "insured" driver under Section 1705 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law, which would have otherwise bound her to the man’s limited tort election.

The court also ruled "unenforceable" any policy that would block a similarly situated permissive driver from pursuing a tort claim.

"A review of controlling authority leads to the conclusion that her status under the terms of the policy did not preclude her from claiming full tort damages against a third-party tortfeasor," President Judge Correale F. Stevens wrote for the majority in McWeeney v. Estate of Janet R. Strickler.

"Limited to the ‘election of tort options’ context, we hold that where a policy’s enlargement of the term ‘insured’ binds more drivers to a limited tort recovery than would be so bound under the MVFRL’s definition, the policy contravenes the legislative intent of Section 1705."

In the case, McWeeney was driving her fiance’s car that was insured under the man’s policy in which she was designated a principal driver. The trial court threw out her claim on summary judgment, agreeing with the estate of the tortfeasor that McWeeney was an insured under the policy’s language and therefore subject to its limited tort election.

The policy at issue stated that all permissive drivers are insured under its terms for both liability and first-party benefit claims. McWeeney was a permitted driver on the policy and, as Stevens noted, was an insured for both types of claims. The policyholder elected limited tort, which allows insureds to recover non-economic damages only if they make a showing of a serious injury, which McWeeney’s attorney admitted would have deflated her case.

The question before the court, therefore, was whether a policy may define an insured more broadly than the MVFRL for the purpose of binding drivers like the plaintiff to the policyholders’ limited tort election, Stevens pointed out.

The answer was no.

"Where, as here, the insurance policy would bar more drivers from claiming non-economic damages against third-party tortfeasors than was contemplated in Section 1705, it runs afoul of the statute and is not enforceable."

Section 1705 of the MVFRL defines insured as an individual living with the named insured who is his or her spouse or other relative or a minor in the custody of the named insured or the named insured’s relative.

According to the opinion, McWeeney did not own a vehicle and she was driving her fiance’s at the time she collided with Janet Strickler in 2008. Strickler has since passed away.

As an uninsured motorist who does not own a car, McWeeney’s eligibility for third-party, non-economic damages is governed by Section 1705(b)(3) of the law, which says such a person can seek economic and non-economic damages.

To the extent the policy would block a permissive driver from filing a tort claim, Stevens concluded, the Progressive insurance policy was unenforceable.

York attorney Steven D. Stambaugh, representing McWeeney, said the case would unquestionably be limited to preclusion, meaning she didn’t pass the "serious injury" threshold to claim non-economic damages, if a court interpreted McWeeney to be an insured under the policy.

He said the value of the precedent outweighed the value of the case (his standing demand is $9,750), and that he did not pass the costs of the appeal to his client.

The decision first came down as an unpublished memorandum opinion, but subsequently became citable law on January 30 following a petition from Stambaugh.

"The appeal was taken solely for the purposes of the public good in trying to get to the right result on the law," Stambaugh said. "The court’s analysis was spot-on and at the end of the day they grabbed the core issue in the case: [that] an insurance carrier cannot write its policies in such a way so as to get around provisions of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law."

"I look forward to pursuing the full tort damages to which Ms. McWeeney is entitled," he added.

Ben Present can be contacted at 215-557-2315 or bpresent@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @BPresentTLI.

(Copies of the 15-page opinion in McWeeney v. Estate of Janet R. Strickler, PICS No. 13-0300, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •