Section Headings in an Insurance Policy are Not the Controlling Language

Posted on October 15th, 2014 by sutteroconnell

In Washington v. GEICO Ins. Co., 2014-Ohio-4375, the Eighth District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment in favor of GEICO regarding Plaintiff’s right to recover as a passenger in the insured’s vehicle following an accident.

Plaintiff Candace Washington sustained injuries during a motor vehicle accident while riding as a passenger in a vehicle driven by Bonita Burse, the insured. Ms. Burse was insured by GEICO and her policy included uninsured/underinsured (“UM/UIM”) motorists coverage.

After GEICO denied coverage to Plaintiff under Ms. Burse’s policy, Plaintiff sought declaratory judgment against GEICO. Plaintiff filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that because she was a passenger in Ms. Burse’s vehicle at the time of the accident, she was covered under the UM/UIM section of the policy. GEICO opposed the motion arguing that Plaintiff was not covered as an insured under Ms. Burse’s policy. The trial court ultimately denied Plaintiff’s motion, finding in favor of GEICO, because Plaintiff “was not a party to the contract and by the terms of the contract, was excluded from coverage.”

Plaintiff appealed asserting that because GEICO’s policy regarding passengers was ambiguous, the policy should be strictly construed against GEICO. More specifically, because the policy used the word “passengers” in a section heading regarding coverage, all passengers of the insured’s vehicle were entitled to coverage under the UM/UIM.

A review of the entire policy revealed that only insureds of the policy were entitled to coverage under the UM/UIM portion and any persons that were not insureds were specifically excluded. The policy defined “insureds” as the individual that was named in the declarations as well as his/her spouse and relatives that resided in the same household. During discovery, Plaintiff admitted that she did not reside with Ms. Burse on the day of the accident nor was she related to Ms. Burse. Plaintiff did not satisfy the definition of insured and was therefore not covered under the UM/UIM section of the policy.

Plaintiff did not dispute that she failed to satisfy the definition of insured; rather, she claimed the policy was ambiguous because one heading included the word “passengers.” The Eighth District Court of Appeals rejected Plaintiff’s argument and found that she was not a party to the contract and, therefore, she had no standing to assert ambiguity against GEICO. Furthermore, the court stated that a heading in the policy “is not the controlling language of a policy or contract; [n]o terms or coverage is provided for in a heading.” To accept Plaintiff’s argument as true, would “expand coverage otherwise limited by the plain and unambiguous definition” set forth in the policy.

A full copy of the opinion can be found here.