Simonette v. Great Am. Ins. Co.

Decision Date04 December 1973
Citation338 A.2d 453,165 Conn. 466
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court

Charles H. Fischer, Jr., West Haven, with whom, on the brief, was Herbert D. Fischer, West Haven, for plaintiff.

F. Timothy McNamara, Hartford, for defendant.


MacDONALD, Associate Justice.

The basic question presented by this reservation from the Superior Court is whether the existence of an automobile liability insurance policy with limits sufficient to satisfy the minimum Connecticut statutory requirements but insufficient to satisfy an admittedly valid tort claim against the operator of the insured. Connecticut motor vehicle permits the classification of that vehicle as an 'uninsured motor vehicle' within the meaning of the uninsured motorist provision in the claimant's own automobile liability insurance policy.

The plaintiff's action seeking an order directing the defendant insurance company to proceed with arbitration was reserved for the advice of this court on a stipulation of the following facts: On June 25, 1970, Joseph P. Simonette, Jr., hereinafter called Simonette, Jr., eighteen years of age, was a passenger in an automobile operated by William K. Good. James Carroll, not a party to this action, also was a passenger in the Good automobile. While traveling on a public highway in the town of Milford the automobile left the road and collided with a telephone pole, resulting in the death of both Simonette, Jr., and Carroll. The negligence of Good was the sole proximate cause of the death of Simonette, Jr. The Good automobile was insured under a liability insurance policy issued by Safeco Insurance Company, hereinafter Safeco, in the amount of $20,000 for each person and $20,000 for each accident, and Safeco paid $10,000 to the estate of Simonette, Jr., and $10,000 to the estate of Carroll under the policy. Damages for the wrongful death of Simonette, Jr., exceed the sum of $10,000. On the date of the accident the plaintiff, Joseph P. Simonette, the father of Simonette, Jr., had an automobile insurance policy with the Great American Insurance Company, hereinafter Great American, under which Simonette, Jr., was an 'insured' and which provided for uninsured motorist coverage in the amount of $20,000 for each person and $20,000 for each occurrence. The estate of Simonette, Jr., made a claim against Great American for payment of the $20,000 uninsured motorist coverage less the sum of $10,000 paid by Safeco on behalf of Good and demanded arbitration of the estate's claim by the American Arbitration Association. Great American has refused to arbitrate. The plaintiff has performed all the conditions of the policy relating to claims made under the uninsured motorist clause.

The questions reserved for the advice of this court are: (1) Should an order issue directing the parties to this action to proceed to arbitrate the claim of the estate of Simonette, Jr., against Great American under the uninsured motorist clause, giving credit to the defendant in said proceedings for the $10,000 already received from Safeco? (2) Is the estate of Simonette, Jr., foreclosed from making any claim under the uninsured motorist clause of the Great American policy to an excess in damages sustained by it over $10,000 but not more than $20,000 by reason of the wrongful death of its decedent? (3) Is the plaintiff entitled to an order directing the defendant to proceed with arbitration? The determination of the second of these questions is decisive of the issues presented upon this reservation.

Section 38-175c of the General Statutes requires that every automobile policy issued in this state must contain a provision for 'uninsured motorists coverage,' with limits for bodily injury or death not less than those specified in § 14-112(a). The minimum coverage required by § 14-112(a) is $20,000. Section 38-175a, in relevant part, authorizes the insurance commissioner to adopt rules and regulations 'with respect to minimum provisions to be included in automobile liability insurance policies . . . and uninsured motorists coverages.' Pursuant to this authorization, the commissioner promulgated § 38-175a-6(d) of the Regulations of the Insurance Commissioner which, referring to the limits of liability of uninsured motorist coverages, states in part that '(t)he limit of the insurer's liability may not be less than the applicable limits for bodily injury liability specified in subsection (a) of section 14-112 of the 1969 supplement to the general statutes, except that the policy may provide for the reduction of limits to the extent that damages have been . . . paid by or on behalf of any person responsible for the injury. . . .' Regs.Conn.State Agencies § 38-175a-6(d).

It is the plaintiff's contention that these statutes and regulations, properly interpreted, entitled an injured party who has an uninsured motorist policy and receives a sum less than the amount specified under that policy from an insured tort-feasor to the difference between what he received from the tort-feasor and the amount of his own uninsured motorist policy provision. With this contention we cannot agree. The substance of the plaintiff's claim is that the word 'uninsured' as used in all of the applicable statutes and regulations, as well as in the plaintiff's insurance policy, must be construed to mean 'underinsured' in relation to the plaintiff's injury. We find no ambiguity, however, in the statutes or regulations which would allow us to interpret into them such a significant addition to the coverage required.

Section 1-1 of the General Statutes provides that '(i)n the construction of the statutes, words and phrases shall be construed according to the commonly approved usage of the language.' State v. Benson, 153 Conn. 209, 214, 214 A.2d 903; Baker v. Norwalk, 152 Conn. 312, 315, 206 A.2d 428. The terms 'automobile liability insurance,' 'insured,' and 'uninsured' are words of common meaning and understanding. 'Automobile liability insurance' is defined in Webster's Third New International Dictionary as 'insurance against loss from or legal liability for damages arising out of ownership, maintenance, or operation of a motor vehicle.' 'Underinsurance' means 'insurance in an amount insufficient to cover the possible loss or to satisfy the requirements of a coinsurance clause.' 'Insured' means 'the owner of a policy of insurance.' 'Un' is simply a prefix meaning 'not.'

That the tort-feasor Good was in fact insured to the extent required by Connecticut's financial responsibility law is not disputed. Thus he clearly was not 'uninsured' in any ordinary sense of the term. The plaintiff argues, however, that to hold that Good was not an uninsured motorist would create the anomalous situation wherein the injured party would be better off if the tort-feasor had no insurance at all. He further points out that 'uninsured motorist' does not necessarily mean a motorist who has no insurance whatever at the time of the accident, citing as examples the situations where the tort-feasor's carrier becomes insolvent after the claim has arisen or where for some reason the insurer disclaims liability.

The plaintiff, unfortunately, is quite correct in labeling the situation in which he finds himself an anomaly. However, '(w)hile . . . (§ 38-175c) should receive an equitable construction, courts cannot read into the terms of a statute something which manifestly is not there is order to reach what the court thinks would be a just result.' State v. Malm, 143 Conn. 462, 467, 123 A.2d 276. Much less does the plaintiff's unfortunate circumstance justify this court's discregarding the legislative mandate that words used in statutes 'shall be construed according to the commonly approved usage of the language.' General Statutes § 1-1. A due regard for the differing functions of the legislative and judicial branches of government requires that the courts refrain from rewriting, under the pretext of interpretation, the clearly expressed language of a legislative enactment which the court deems to be preferable to that which the legislation requires. 'In the field of legislation, the legislature is supreme. Courts must apply legislative enactments according to their plain terms.' State v. Malm, supra. 'Uninsured' clearly is not the same as 'underinsured' and '(a) court will not torture words to import ambiguity where the ordinary meaning leaves no room for ambiguity, and words do not become ambiguous simply because lawyers or laymen contend for different meanings.' Marcolini v. Allstate Ins. Co., 160 Conn. 280, 284, 278 A.2d 796, 798. To adopt the plaintiff's suggested definition of 'uninsured' would effect a drastic change in the law of insurance as it now stands in this state. Although the case before us involves an uninsured motorist policy with a $20,000 limit, § 38-175c provides that each insurer licensed in the state 'shall' provide uninsured motorist coverage to the extent requested by the insured, up to the amount of the bodily injury coverage in the same policy, which might be $300,000 or more. If the plaintiff's position were to be accepted, a tort-feasor with $200,000 of liability coverage nonetheless would be considered 'uninsured' with respect to an injured party seeking to recover additional damages suffered from the carrier of his uninsured motorist policy.

We note further that the legislature already has addressed itself to some phases of the problem. Section 38-175c specifically includes insured motor vehicles, 'the insurer of which becomes insolvent prior to payment of . . . damages' within the scope of 'uninsured motorists coverage.' In doing so it established one specific exception to the ordinary meaning of the word 'uninsured,' no doubt in order to preclude one possible situation where the injured party would be better off had he been injured by one who...

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