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Vol. 3, Iss.5
March 19, 2014


Four Leaf Cover: St. Patrick’s Day And Insurance Coverage

There are only a handful of coverage cases related to St. Patrick’s Day. And as you can imagine, given how some celebrate the holiday, they are on the unpleasant side. But over 50 years ago, in St. Paul Mercury Indemnity Co. v. Knoph, 87 N.W.2d 636 (Minn. 1958), the Minnesota Supreme Court addressed coverage for a St. Patrick’s Day incident that is heartwarming.

Maurice Knoph was a partner in a taxicab business. On the evening of March 17 he received a call for a cab at the company office from Mr. and Mrs. O’Rourke. A driver, who had his cab with him at home, was dispatched to pick up the O’Rourkes. However, the driver never reached the O’Rourke’s home because of a flat tire. Knoph was immediately notified. Since none of the other cabs were available, and since Knoph was about to leave for home anyway, he decided to transport the O’Rourkes himself. He used his own personal car, a 1954 Mercury, which was insured by St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. When Knoph arrived at the O’Rourke home he pulled into the driveway and the O’Rourkes, believing this to be the cab they ordered, came outside, got in and proceeded toward their destination. During the trip Knoph explained to the O’Rourkes the circumstances that led to him being their driver.

A collision occurred. Knoph was sued and he looked to St. Paul to defend him. The insurer denied that it owed coverage because of an exclusion in the policy for use of a vehicle as a public or livery conveyance. St. Paul argued that Knoph merely substituted his personal car for one of the company taxicabs and that he intended to charge a fare. Thus, as the insurer saw it, he was using his automobile as a public or livery conveyance. Knoph, on the other hand, argued that he was “merely rendering a service to an ‘Irishman’ by taking him to a St. Patrick’s day party,” that he was on his way home anyway and he did not intend to charge the O’Rourkes. Thus, he argued that he did not violate the terms of his policy. Knoph also argued that to use his car as a taxicab, when it was not so licensed or equipped, or to act as a cab driver when he had no chauffeur’s license, would have violated state law. And this he never intended to do.

Following a review of several cases nationally, the court held: “When the dispatched cab became disabled, [Knoph] was not bound to substitute his automobile for it. Whether or not he intended to charge a fare is immaterial. What is important is that in one isolated instance he transported a couple who were in a special predicament. We cannot say that he thereby converted his car into a public or livery conveyance. Therefore we conclude that on the facts as presented, defendant’s coverage under the policy was not suspended during the time he was transporting the O’Rourkes.” [The court went on to address some other issues that ultimately resulted in the court granting a new trial.]

Postscript: Counsel for St. Paul in Knoph was David Nord and O.C. Adamson II of Meagher, Geer, Markham & Anderson. I reached out to my friend and Best Lawyer’s 2014 Minnesota Insurance Law Lawyer of the Year, Chuck Spevacek of Meagher & Geer, to let him know I was writing about an old case from his firm. He shared with me that Ockie Adamson was one of the great appellate lawyers in Minnesota history and the long-time co-author of Minnesota Practice. He is one of the rare insurance defense lawyers to argue a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Rush v. Savchuk, 444 U.S. 320 (1980) was a personal jurisdiction case that answered, in the negative, whether the fact the defendant’s insurance company did business in Minnesota was enough to confer personal jurisdiction over the insured defendant, a non-Minnesota resident with no other ties to the state.

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