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ombudsman news

issue 1

January 2001

case studies - studies keys in cars

The case studies below illustrate some of the situations where we have agreed that the policyholder's claim was valid.

01/06 motor - theft - exclusion for theft if keys left in car - whether policyholder in breach of exclusion.
01/07 The policyholder arranged cover for her Fiat Marea, over the telephone, on 9 August 1999. The next day the vehicle was stolen while she was paying for petrol. She said she had inadvertently left her keys in the ignition.
01/08 The policyholder was picking up his children from school. He left his car in a busy street with the door shut but the keys in the ignition while he went to speak to his son, about eight feet behind the car. Less than two minutes later, two youths ran up, jumped into the car and drove off, despite the policyholder's best efforts to stop them. The youths were involved in an accident and the policyholder's car was a total write-off.
01/09 The policyholder reversed his car out of his garage and got out of the car to return briefly to the house, leaving the car keys in the ignition and closing but not locking the car door. He said he had only been away from the car for approximately 30 seconds but came back out of the house to find the car had been stolen. The insurer declined the claim on the ground that the policy excluded theft "if the car is left unattended or unoccupied and the doors and boot are not locked or any roof opening/hood has not been secured closed or if the keys are not removed from the car".

01/06
motor - theft - exclusion for theft if keys left in car - whether policyholder in breach of exclusion.

The policyholder stopped his car on his driveway and got out, leaving the engine running and the door open, in order to lift up his garage door. However, before doing so he stopped to put his briefcase in the unlocked porch adjacent to his garage. As he did this he heard a noise and turned round to see someone jump into his car and reverse away at high speed. He was very close to the car but could not prevent it from being stolen.

The insurer declined the claim on the basis of exclusion for "losses arising from the use of keys which had been left in or around the vehicle".

01/07
The policyholder arranged cover for her Fiat Marea, over the telephone, on 9 August 1999. The next day the vehicle was stolen while she was paying for petrol. She said she had inadvertently left her keys in the ignition.

The insurer rejected the claim, relying on a policy term excluding theft "if the insured vehicle has not been locked, windows and sunroof closed and keys removed, when left unattended or unoccupied". The policyholder maintained that when she telephoned to arrange the insurance she had been told all the good points of the policy but not about the restrictions, and the policy did not arrive until after the car was stolen.

01/08
The policyholder was picking up his children from school. He left his car in a busy street with the door shut but the keys in the ignition while he went to speak to his son, about eight feet behind the car. Less than two minutes later, two youths ran up, jumped into the car and drove off, despite the policyholder's best efforts to stop them. The youths were involved in an accident and the policyholder's car was a total write-off.

The insurer refused payment on the ground that the policy excluded claims for theft if "the car is left unattended or unoccupied and the doors and boot are not locked or any window or roof opening/hood has not been secured closed or if the keys are not removed from the car". It said that the policy wording was clear and that the commentary in the policy also explained that theft was not covered "unless the car is fully locked and the keys are removed when it is left unattended or unoccupied". The policyholder argued that he had left the car on the spur of the moment because he needed to speak to his son; he had been only feet away and the car had been in sight the whole time.

01/09
The policyholder reversed his car out of his garage and got out of the car to return briefly to the house, leaving the car keys in the ignition and closing but not locking the car door. He said he had only been away from the car for approximately 30 seconds but came back out of the house to find the car had been stolen. The insurer declined the claim on the ground that the policy excluded theft "'if the car is left unattended or unoccupied and the doors and boot are not locked or any roof opening/hood has not been secured closed or if the keys are not removed from the car".

complaints upheld
We considered the four complaints above were valid. We interpreted these exclusions as removing theft cover only when the car driver has clearly gone away from the vehicle. This applies regardless of whether the exclusion referred to leaving the vehicle "unattended" or simply stated there was no theft cover if the keys had been "left". This interpretation required evidence that the driver had either gone a significant distance from the vehicle or had left it for an extended period. It was not sufficient for the driver merely to have turned his back or gone inside his home briefly. While we would not generally interpret such exclusions in a wide sense, we would not require insurers to meet this type of claim if we were satisfied the driver had behaved in a reckless fashion.

The following case summaries illustrate complaints we rejected.

01/010 motor - theft - lack of reasonable care - policyholder aware of risks - whether loss excluded.
01/011 motor - theft - exclusion for car left unattended and doors unlocked - whether car left unattended.
01/012 motor - theft - exclusion for theft if keys left in unattended car - whether car unattended.

01/010
motor - theft - lack of reasonable care - policyholder aware of risks - whether loss excluded.

In May 1999, the policyholder paid £17,000 cash for a Volkswagen Golf GTI turbo to be imported from Belgium. He arranged insurance to take effect on the anticipated delivery date. Nine days after accepting the car, he filled it with petrol. Later that afternoon, he returned to the filling station to put the car through the jet wash.

Leaving the key on the driver's seat, he went to the tap to wash his hands. The policyholder noticed a man who did not appear to have a car and who was standing in front of the jet wash.

However, the policyholder did not feel particularly concerned. As he was washing, he heard a car revving up. At first he did not realise the car was his, but then he saw it being driven out of the garage by the man he noticed earlier. The insurer rejected the theft claim on the ground that the policyholder had breached the duty to take reasonable care of his car.

complaint rejected
The courts had decided that the duty of reasonable care was breached if the individual acted "recklessly" - meaning that the individual recognised a risk but deliberately took no steps to avoid it or took steps that were clearly inadequate.

In this case, the policyholder saw someone loitering near his car but had left the car unlocked with the keys on the driver's seat. We were satisfied he had taken no steps to protect his car from a known risk of theft.

01/011
motor - theft - exclusion for car left unattended and doors unlocked - whether car left unattended.

The policyholder was building a house and, in January 1999, visited it to drop off some equipment. He parked his Mazda off the road, leaving it unlocked and the car key among a bunch of keys in the lock on the front door of the house. The car was stolen and was later recovered in a damaged condition, requiring nearly £3,000 to repair.

The insurer rejected the claim. It explained that the policy excluded liability for thefts if "the car is left unattended or unoccupied and the doors... are not locked". The policyholder argued that he had acted reasonably and he produced photographs showing that the car would have been visible only to someone close to the house. He also pointed out that his household insurer had met his claim for tools and equipment stolen with the car.

complaint rejected
We were satisfied that the car was both unattended and unoccupied at the time of the theft. We accepted that the household insurer was satisfied that the policyholder had behaved reasonably, but that was not the motor insurer's reason for declining liability and was therefore not relevant in this situation.

01/012
motor - theft - exclusion for theft if keys left in unattended car - whether car unattended.

The policyholder's husband parked their Landrover Discovery in front of a terraced house where he was working. He removed the keys from the ignition, but left the vehicle unlocked. A spare set of keys was kept in the car in the pocket on the driver's side. The driver entered the house to close windows upstairs and downstairs and to set the alarm. He returned to the pavement to see the car disappearing up the road.

The insurer rejected the policyholder's theft claim on the ground that the policy excluded any claim for "loss or damage if the Motor Car has not been locked, with the windows closed and ignition key removed, when left unattended or unoccupied".

complaint rejected
The case law established that an item was "unattended" if someone was not in a position to observe any attempt to interfere with it, and was close enough to have a reasonable prospect of preventing any unauthorised interference. It was clear that the husband had not been in any position to observe the attempt to interfere with the vehicle. We were satisfied that the car was "unattended" and therefore within the scope of the exclusion.

Walter Merricks, chief ombudsman

ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.