17 Dec Liability Policy Covers Claim by Unpaid Minor Helping Out on the Farm
In a December 16, 2014 decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected an insurance company’s effort to avoid liability coverage for a claim by a young boy who was seriously injured while working for free on his family’s farm (North Carolina Farm Bureau Ins. Co. v. Burns). The injured boy was the youngest son of the farm owner, and he regularly helped out when he was told to do so by his father.
At the time of the accident, the boy was helping his older brother, a paid farm employee, clean out a grain bin. The boy’s leg was amputated below the knee when he accidentally stepped in a hole in the floor of the bin, catching his foot in the auger that pulled out the grain.
The farm’s insurance carrier filed suit, asking the court to declare that the boy’s claim was not covered because the policy did not protect against claims by “volunteer workers” who were injured on the job. On appeal from a summary judgment in favor of the insured, the Court of Appeals was faced with competing arguments about how to interpret the term “volunteer worker” in this context. The policy defined “volunteer worker” as someone who “donates his or her work” and “is not paid a fee, salary or other compensation,” but it did not define the term “donate.” The Court of Appeals rejected the carrier’s argument that the term “donate” meant simply working for free, noting that the definition separately provided that a “volunteer worker” was not paid, and all terms in the policy should be given effect in construing its meaning. Looking to the common definition of the word “donate,” the Court found that the term required the exercise of choice and free will. Since the injured boy was working for free because his father told him to, rather than as a matter of personal choice, the Court found that he was not “donating” his time, and thus was not a “volunteer worker.” As a result, the boy’s claim was covered by the farm’s liability policy.
Disputes frequently arise regarding the proper construction of definitions, exclusions and other terms in insurance policies. A slight difference in the construction of a word here or a phrase there can mean the difference between complete protection and financial ruin for a policyholder. At Parry & Tyndall, we have significant experience helping individual and business policyholders recover insurance proceeds that are due to them, including claims under all types of liability policies. If you believe that you or your business has been wrongly denied coverage or has otherwise suffered damages from an insurance company’s refusal to live up to its policy obligations, please give us a call at 919.967.0504 to set up a free initial consultation.