If you cause a motor vehicle accident where your spouse is injured, can he or she recover under your insurance policy? Generally speaking, the answer is New York was no; insurance law presumes auto insurance excluded coverage for “interspousal liability” unless the policy expressly stated otherwise. But in 2002, the New York legislature amended the law to require insurers offer “supplemental spousal liability insurance.” A person does not have to purchase such coverage, but the insurer has a legal obligation to notify its customers such additional protection is available.
Although these requirements seem straightforward enough, there has been litigation over the applicability—and indeed the constitutionality—of the amended interspousal liability law. In October 2009, a husband was driving with his wife when the car skidded out of control, crashing and causing serious injuries to the wife. The husband notified his insurance company about the accident. The wife later sued her husband for negligence. On both occasions, the insurance company disclaimed coverage, citing the “spousal liability exclusion” in the husband's policy.
The husband eventually sued the insurance company in Kings County Supreme Court, alleging it failed to properly notify him of his right to purchase supplemental spousal liability insurance. He further claimed the amended insurance law was unconstitutional and his wife should not be treated as an excluded spouse because the couple was in the process of getting a divorce at the time of the accident.
The insurance company removed the lawsuit to Brooklyn federal court, which ultimately dismissed all of the plaintiff's claims. First, the court rejected the husband's claim New York law violated the United States Constitution's prohibition on “bills of attainder.” A bill of attainder refers to a legislative act which punishes a person without trial. Here, the husband claimed the presumed exclusion of interspousal liability from insurance policies “specifically targets lawfully married persons solely by virtue of their marriages.” But as U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Bianco explained, the bill of attainder clause only bans legislative “punishments,” not laws that may treat different classes of people differently.
Judge Bianco similarly rejected the husband's other arguments. The judge said the husband failed to present any evidence the insurance company failed to make supplemental spousal liability coverage available to him. Nor was there any defect in the insurance company's notice to the husband about the availability of such coverage. For example, the husband argued the notice he received was not in “boldface type,” as required by New York law. But Judge Bianco explained the boldface requirement only applied to new policies issued after January 1, 2003; the husband's policy was first issued before that date. Nor could the husband argue his wife was not really his “spouse” because of their pending divorce case. New York law is quite clear that a married couple remains married unless and until a court enters a “final divorce decree.”
The husband appealed Judge Bianco's decision without success. On August 3, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court in a short, unsigned order.
If you need advice from an experienced New York personal injury attorney on dealing with your own insurance company, or any other matter related to a motor vehicle accident, contact our offices right away.