Co-signed loan dooms brother’s crash injury coverage

It’s relatively rare to find a judge’s dissent in an opinion from the Minnesota Court of Appeals, but that’s the case today with its decision (pdf) involving a man who was injured while riding in a car for which the driver did not provide any insurance.

Under Minnesota law, people who are hurt by uninsured drivers can be covered under the Minnesota Automobile Assigned Claims Plan. But today, the Court of Appeals said Paek Saengkeo, injured in a 2010 crash, isn’t entitled to any benefit because his brother, who lived with him, had co-signed the loan for his then-girlfriend.

The brother and his girlfriend broke up a year before the accident, in which the now ex-girlfriend was driving. Sengkeo’s brother didn’t know there was no insurance on the SUV, but the state law is clear on the matter: “Persons, whether or not related by blood or marriage, who dwell and function together with the owner [of an uninsured vehicle] as a family” are not eligible for coverage for injuries at the hands of an uninsured driver.

There’s no indication in today’s decision that Saengkeo’s brother had anything to do with the accident. While his name was on the loan, all the payments were made by his ex-girlfriend, with whom he hadn’t communicated in months. But his name was still on the loan, and Court of Appeals Judge Judge Larry B. Stauber, Jr., said because that makes him an owner, by the language of the law, Saengkeo isn’t covered.

“Although we acknowledge that the purpose of the assigned claims plan may be to provide coverage to respondent, the plain language of [the law] indicates that the unique facts of this case prevent respondent from being entitled to coverage,” Judge Stauber wrote in today’s decision. “And it is well settled that this court will not re-write an unambiguous statute to conform to what may be the legislature’s intent.

“The record reflects that use of the Ford Explorer was contemplated at the time of the accident; girlfriend was using the Explorer, and the last time brother communicated with girlfriend, he knew that she was using the vehicle. If brother had any question about the vehicle’s use or whether he should maintain insurance on the vehicle, he could have removed his name from the title to ensure that he was not a legal owner of the Ford Explorer. He did not. Because he remained an owner of the vehicle, and use of the vehicle was contemplated at the time of the accident, brother was required to maintain insurance on the Explorer.”

Under Minnesota law, a vehicle owner must provide insurance during “the period in which operation or use is contemplated.” In her dissent, Judge Louise Dovre Bjorkman, said Saengkeo’s brother didn’t hold the title on the SUV and hadn’t used it or had access to it for over a year. So he couldn’t have “contemplated” driving the vehicle and, therefore, making sure it had insurance was not his responsibility.

And, besides, Saengkeo is the innocent party, she suggested.

“[Saengkeo] was not a licensed driver, did not own a vehicle (under any definition of ownership), and was an innocent passenger when he was seriously injured,” she wrote. “He had no reason to obtain insurance. Nor as a practical matter did brother act irresponsibly by not insuring girlfriend’s vehicle that he did not use and that girlfriend properly insured.”