Basic car insurance found to cover pizza drivers

Insurers can't exclude them, appeals court rules

February 11, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

Michael Joseph Salamon took a job delivering pizza three years ago to earn extra money while attending college full time, but a car crash on the job ended up costing him instead.

Salamon had to dip into his pocket when his insurance company wouldn't pay for the damages: a clause in his personal policy forbade delivering food.

But yesterday, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the clause by Progressive Classic Insurance Co. of Ohio was invalid. That judgment was seen as a victory for Salamon and hundreds of other pizza drivers whose largely minimum-wage jobs make it difficult or impossible for them to afford commercial auto insurance.

Critics of the decision said it would send insurance rates up for everyone because pizza deliverers -- who often drive in stressful conditions, at night and in inclement weather -- might not be paying their fair share for coverage.

The ruling does not forbid insurance companies from charging higher premiums to pizza deliverers, as it typically does for drivers who report that they use their cars frequently for business.

Under Maryland insurance regulations, all drivers are required to buy minimum coverage, whether a car is being used for personal or business reasons. Minimum coverage by state law is $20,000 per person, $40,000 for any two persons and $15,000 for property damage.

The General Assembly has designated "exemptions" for higher-risk drivers whom insurers can treat differently, such as motorcyclists and taxi drivers. In ruling in Salamon's favor, the appellate court said legislators had not made an exception for pizza deliverers in state auto insurance law.

The decision overruled a finding in Baltimore County Circuit Court.

"It clarifies the law to make the public policy very strong," Randi Johnson, assistant commissioner for property and casualty for the Maryland Insurance Commission, said of the ruling. "There are very few exclusions. It will not allow the insurance company to walk away from its obligation to provide minimum coverage."

Salamon, who according to his lawyer recently graduated from culinary school, did not want to be interviewed for this article.

His attorney, Robert J. Lynott, contended that insurance companies have openly disregarded the law for years.

"Just because an insurance company puts something in the policy that says you're not going to be covered because you've got two speeding tickets doesn't mean it's enforceable," said Lynott, an attorney with Thomas & Libowitz PA, a Baltimore law firm. "The Court of Appeals would look dimly at it."

Progressive said it doesn't plan to appeal the case or ask the General Assembly to add an exclusion.

"Although the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, we are pleased to now have additional clarity regarding exclusions in the state and think that the decision will help make auto insurance easier to understand for Maryland drivers," Progressive said in a statement.

Others in the insurance industry expressed stronger displeasure.

"This is an example of why insurance costs are so high in Maryland," said David Snyder, vice president and assistant general counsel for the American Insurance Association in Washington.

"Exclusions of this kind are regularly upheld in other states because personal insurance policies are intended for personal and family use, and not business use," Snyder said. "What happens when a court rules as it did in Maryland is everybody pays more to subsidize the few people that make unexpected use of their cars."

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