State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance v. White
Date of Verdict:
Court and Case No.:
U.S. District Court, M.D. Pa.
Christopher C. Conner.
Type of Action:
Matthew F. Dolfi, Robb Leonard Mulvihill, Pittsburgh.
Michael J. Pykosh and Brett Flower, Dethlefs-Pykosh Law Group, Camp Hill; Matthew S. Crosby; Handler, Henning & Rosenberg, Harrisburg.
On July 10, 2012, plaintiff State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. was the insurer of a sedan owned by Lisa Gracey. At about 1 a.m., Bryant White was driving Gracey’s sedan on Route 915, in Fulton County. He lost control of the car, left the road, and struck a tree head-on. White was killed, as was Gracey’s son, Cody Gracey, a front-seat passenger. Sitting in the rear seats were Cheyenne Hege and William Hess, who both suffered severe injuries.
Hege and Hess had originally sued White’s estate, Gracey, and her daughter, Morgen Gracey, seeking coverage for their injuries and treatment; however, the lawsuits were stayed after State Farm filed for a declaratory judgment against White’s estate, Hege, and Hess. Whether Hege and Hess could proceed in their actions was dependent on the outcome of a jury trial to determine whether White had implied permission to use Lisa Gracey’s car.
At trial, State Farm maintained that White did not have implied permission, and therefore the insurer had no duty to indemnify Hess and Hege, or to defend White, since he did not have permission from Lisa Gracey, the owner of the vehicle, to drive it.
Lisa Gracey had permitted her daughter, Morgen, to use the car. Lisa Gracey testified that when she purchased the car, in May 2012, she told her daughter that only Morgen was allowed to drive it. At the time of the accident, Morgen was dating White.
Morgen Gracey testified that, on the night of the accident, she, Cody Gracey, White, Hege, and Hess were outside her house and got into an argument, which prompted Hess to leave. Morgen Gracey claimed that she became ill, which prompted her to go inside to use the bathroom. Before she went outside, she told everyone not to use her car to go after Hess. White, however, disobeyed her orders and got behind the wheel of her car, along with Cody Gracey, Hege, and later Hess.
Counsel for Hess and Hege maintained that White had implied permission since he had driven Gracey’s car on multiple occasions, and with Hess and Hege present. Lisa Gracey had given uncontrolled use of her car to her daughter, and so Morgen Gracey could give consent to others, including White, their counsel asserted. In addition to Hess and Hege’s testimonies, other witnesses testified that they had seen White driving around town in Gracey’s car.
Hess and Hege’s counsel relied on the testimony of an investigating state trooper, who testified that White had alcohol in his system at the time of the crash. The court precluded the trooper from disclosing White’s blood-alcohol content, since he was not a toxicologist.
Counsel for White’s estate was not present at trial.
State Farm sought declaratory judgment against White’s estate, Hege, and Hess.
The jury found that White did not have implied permission to use Gracey’s vehicle on July 10, 2012.
This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiff’s counsel. Defense counsel did not respond to phone calls.
—This report first appeared in VerdictSearch, an ALM publication.