Driving a Car Without Permission – What is Covered by Insurance?

Author: Attorney Christopher A. Meyer

Most people know that their motor vehicle insurance policy covers them for accidents due to their fault when they are driving the car on the policy.  Many of us also sometimes  drive someone else’s car.  Do you know whether, when you are operating someone else’s vehicle, you are covered by either the insurance on that car or by your own insurance at home on your car – or both?

Under Virginia law the answer is almost always both, provided that the driver has the permission of the owner.  If I own a car, I will of course be covered by my insurance when I am operating it.  But if I lend the car to another person, they will be also be covered because the insurance policy covers “any person?using?said automobile?with the express or implied permission of the named insured and within the scope of such permission.”  And they will be covered by their own insurance, too, on top of mine.

The limitation that the use of the vehicle must be “within the scope of such permission” simply means that if I loan my car to a friend to go to the store and get me a six pack of Diet Pepsi, and instead the friend decides to go on a jaunt to Florida for Spring Break without telling me or asking my permission, then the friend will not by covered by my automobile insurance policy on that trip as he has exceeded the scope of the permission I gave him.

My friend’s own insurance policy will not cover him either in that circumstance.  When driving a vehicle that is “non-owned” as my car would be to my friend, my friend is covered by his own policy only “? while using such automobile, provided his actual operation?is with the express or implied permission or reasonably believed to be with the permission, of the owner and is within the scope of such permission.”  When my friend, who has been given permission to go to the store and get me some diet drinks, instead heads for Florida then he has exceeded the scope of the permission I gave him and will not be covered by his own policy either.

What if I loan my car to a friend and the friend then loans the car to a third person?  Does my policy cover my friend’s friend (the third person)? Does the third person’s own policy also cover him driving my vehicle?  In short, does the friend have the right to give permission to drive a car he doesn’t own but has borrowed?  In Virginia the answer is generally yes.  For many years, Virginia law said that a person who borrowed a car could not give greater permission than he had.  So if I lent my car to a friend but told the friend that he could not lend it to anyone else, then if he did lend then the third person was not covered even though the third person didn’t know I had given my friend only limited permission to use the car. However, a few years ago Virginia law was changed to state that if the third person reasonably thought he had permission of the owner, then he was covered even if the person who lent it to him had been forbidden to lend it to anyone else by the owner. In other words, for purposes of being covered by the owner’s policy – and his own policy, the driver can rely for permission on the word of the custodian of the car.  For example, if a person owns a car and lets his son use it at college, and the son lets a roommate borrow the car, does the roommate’s own automobile policy cover him?  The answer is yes.

However, Virginia law on insurance coverage is very complicated and individual fact situations can change the answer to coverage questions.  The best advice is to make sure that you have the permission of the owner of an automobile before operating it.  That way you will be sure you are covered both under the owner’s policy and your own.  If you have any doubts about insurance coverage, consult an attorney.  At Allen and Allen, we have many attorneys who are very knowledgeable about insurance law.  One of our attorneys, W. Coleman Allen, Jr.,  has literally written a book on Virginia automobile insurance coverage, and many of our attorneys lecture regularly on insurance topics.

About the Author: Chris Meyer is a car accident attorney in Mechanicsville Virginia with the personal injury law firm of Allen & Allen. He has developed a reputation on the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct and annually lectures on Virginia Legal Ethics. He also lectures regularly on recent decisions of the Virginia Supreme court.