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October 16, 2013

Is the Insurer Always Justified in Denying Coverage On the Basis of a Breach of a Statutory Clause?

Every automobile insurance policy issued in Ontario contains statutory clause 4.1:
                The insured shall not drive or operate or permit any other person to drive or operate the automobile unless the insured or other person is authorized by law to drive or operate it.
Section 32 of Highway Traffic Act requires an operator of a motor vehicle to hold a valid driver’s licence. In Kozel v.Personal Insurance Co. [2013] ONSC 2670 (S.C.J), the applicant was a 77 woman year old woman who was involved in a motor vehicle accident in Florida. Her insurer denied coverage on the basis that she was in breach of the policy at the time of the accident because her driver’s license had expired. The applicant brought this application for a declaration that the insurer owed a duty to indemnify and defend her in a third party action against her.
Approximately five months prior to the accident, the applicant received documentation from the Ministry concerning the renewal of her driver’s licence and vehicle plate sticker. Two weeks prior to the renewal date, the applicant gave the package of documentation to her dealership where she took delivery of a new vehicle. She was unaware that this package contained her licence renewal. Until the accident occurred, she was unaware that her licence had not been renewed. She reported the accident in a timely manner and renewed her license immediately upon discovering it was expired.
Justice Wood cited the 2011 Court of Appeal decision Tut v. R.B.C. General Insurance Company [2011] ONCA 644 where it was held that if an offence for breaching the regulation was one of strict liability rather than absolute liability, it was open to the insured to argue that he took all reasonable care in the circumstances to see that he was not in breach of the regulation. Were he able to argue this defence successfully it would follow that he remained authorized to drive within the meaning of statutory condition 4(1).
Justice Wood held that since an offence of driving with an expired licence is one of strict liability, an argument that the applicant exercised due diligence was available. Justice Wood found that the applicant took active steps to ensure that she met her duty, although mistakenly, she provided a believable explanation for her lack of perfect diligence and her actions were those of a reasonable person acting upon a genuinely mistaken belief.  As such, the court found that the applicant was entitled to a defence under the policy.
This case shows that breaches of the insurance policy are not always clear cut and can involve the consideration by the court of many subjective factors.    

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