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“Operate” Means “Operate”

In a recent opinion from the Western District of Oklahoma, Goeringer v. Sun Life Assur. Co. of Canada, 2012 WL 393618 (W.D. Okla. 2012), the court reviewed an accidental death and dismemberment claim determination.  The insured died from acute carbon monoxide intoxication.  He was found in the driver’s seat of his truck in his closed garage.  His key was in the ignition in the “on” position and the battery was dead.  On autopsy, his blood alcohol level was determined to be above the legal limit.  The insurer denied the claim because the policy excluded any loss resulting from the insured’s operation of a motorized vehicle while intoxicated.

The plaintiffs argued that the exclusion should not apply because the vehicle in question was not being used for transportation, but was parked in the insured’s garage at the time of his death.  However, the court found that the term “operate” should be given its plain and ordinary meaning, which is quite broad.  The court thus held that the insurer’s determination that the death resulted from the operation of a motorized vehicle while intoxicated was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence and should be upheld.

This case is interesting because many people normally associate an intoxication exclusion with “drunk driving.”  However, as this case demonstrates, the wording of an intoxication exclusion is significant because it can also reach other situations with which we would not typically associate its application.  In this instance, the insurer did not need to invoke the suicide exclusion, which can be difficult to support, because the intoxication exclusion’s use of “operate” was broad enough to apply.