IL Supreme Court says ambiguous language in insurance policies doesn’t necessarily ‘stack’ liability limits in multi-vehicle accidents

A unanimous Illinois Supreme Court ruled a school bus driver hurt in a fatal multivehicle pileup on Interstate 74 in McLean County can’t stack liability coverage in order to run a payout up to $7 million.

Justice Elizabeth Rochford wrote the opinion filed May 23, affirming an appellate court’s ruling that reversed the initial opinion of a circuit court judge.

In that ruling, the judge cited ambiguities in an insurance policy’s “anti-stacking” provision intended to prevent combination of $1 million from each of seven insured vehicles.

The collision happened before 9 p.m. on Dec. 5, 2018, as Mark Kuhn was driving the Normal West High School junior varsity girls basketball team westbound on Interstate 74. Ryan Hute, working for Farrell Trucking, was eastbound in a 2010 Kenworth truck when the rig crossed the center grass median and struck Kuhn’s bus head on. The crash killed Hute and Charlie Crabtree, an adult volunteer on the JV bus.

At issue is the Owners Insurance Company policy issued to Farrell and covering Hute as a driver as well as the truck, although not the attached trailer. Kuhn’s lawsuit against Hute’s estate and corporate entities related to the trucking firm said coverage should include $1 million for each of three semitrucks and four trailers on the policy.

Because the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, Rochford explained, the dispute redounds to the legal question of whether this particular “anti-stacking” provision is valid and enforceable. She noted such policies generally don’t violate public policy, but ambiguity in contract language is to be construed liberally in favor of the covered party.

Kuhn contended the ambiguity was found in policy declaration pages with separate listings of liability limits for multiple insured vehicles. But Rochford said the court has already considered similar arguments and made distinctions based on declarations pages clearly stating premiums and coverage limits for different vehicles. In some cases, the court said, physical printing limitations might appear to support stacking claims, underscoring the importance of reading an entire policy and not just itemized declarations.

In this case, Rochford said, Farrell’s policy from Owners specifically states: “Limit of Insurance for this coverage may not be added to the limits for the same or similar coverage applying to other autos insured by this policy to determine the amount of coverage available for any one accident.”

The policy further states that a covered trailer connected to a covered truck becomes one automobile for the purpose of insurance.

“Appellants seem to take the position that, regardless of the specific anti-stacking language used in an insurance policy, the declarations pages alone will render the policy ambiguous if the limits of liability are listed in conjunction with each insured vehicle,” Rochford wrote. “However, we have repeatedly emphasized there is no ‘per se rule that an insurance policy will be deemed ambiguous as to the limits of liability any time the limits are noted more than once on the declarations.’ ”

The policy charged a premium of $6,311 to provide coverage up to “$1 million each accident,” Rochford noted. Although the vehicles are treated differently in some aspects — trailers to not have under- or uninsured motorist coverage, one vehicle didn’t have collision or comprehensive coverage — each has a $1 million limit per accident and the policy clearly prevents stacking, she said.

The panel further rejected an argument one policy section supersedes another, finding that clause only “provides a more specific breakdown of the information summarized in a chart” in the earlier section. It remanded the issue to circuit court with instructions to enter summary judgment on behalf of Owners.

Kuhn is represented by Terence Kelly, of Kraft Wood Kelly, Bloomington. Neither Kelly nor a representative of his firm responded to a request from The Record for comment about the decision.

This article was first published in Cook County Record.

Leave a Reply