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Kelley v. North East Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Maine

July 25, 2017


          Argued: June 15, 2017

          Arthur J. Greif, Esq. (orally), Gilbert & Greif, P.A., Bangor, for appellant Richardie Kelley

          John S. Whitman, Esq. (orally), Richardson, Whitman, Large & Badger, Portland, for appellee North East Insurance Company


          GORMAN, J.

         [¶l] Richardie Kelley appeals from the entry of a summary judgment in the Superior Court (Penobscot County, Anderson, /.) in favor of North East Insurance Company on the reach and apply action she brought pursuant to 24-A M.R.S. § 2904 (2016). The court concluded that the damages awarded to Kelley in the underlying action, see 7 M.R.S. § 3961(2) (2016), were based on a claim that was not covered by the North East automobile insurance policy. We agree and affirm the judgment.

         I. BACKGROUND

         [¶2] The following facts are undisputed. Teresa Snyder held an automobile insurance policy from North East pursuant to which she was the "named insured" and her 1999 Ford Mustang was the "covered auto." Snyder and Tim McCann were the unmarried co-owners of a dog. On February 21, 2009, McCann drove one of his employer's cars to Frankfort to meet Kelley, who had purchased an old pickup truck from McCann's son. McCann brought the dog with him in the car. During the transfer of the pickup truck, someone[1]opened the door to the car containing the dog, and the dog, without leaving the car, bit Kelley in the face. Snyder was not present during this incident and was not a driver, passenger, or owner of the car that the dog was in when it bit Kelley. Kelley filed a lawsuit against Snyder and McCann, for which North East declined to defend or indemnify Snyder. See 7 M.R.S. § 3961(2). The parties to that suit stipulated to a judgment of $100, 000.

         [¶3] On December 4, 2015, Kelley filed a complaint against North East pursuant to 24-A M.R.S. § 2904, seeking to satisfy her judgment against Snyder through Snyder's auto insurance policy.[2] After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. On November 16, 2016, the court granted North East's motion for the entry of a summary judgment and denied Kelley's. The court concluded that, pursuant to the definition in the policy, Snyder was not an "insured" for the purposes of Kelley's suit and that Kelley's bodily injury did not arise from an "auto accident" as required by the policy. Kelley timely appealed.


         [¶4] We review de novo both a court's grant of summary judgment and its interpretation of an insurance policy. Cox v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., 2013 ME 8, ¶ 8, 59 A.3d 1280. Where, as here, the material facts are not in dispute, we limit our review to whether the prevailing party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Langevin v. Allstate Ins. Co., 2013 ME 55, ¶ 7, 66 A.3d 585; see M.R. Civ. P. 56.

         [¶5] The review of a judgment in a reach and apply action requires us to first "identify the basis of liability and damages from the underlying complaint and judgment" and then to "review the . . . insurance policy to determine if any of the damages awarded in the underlying judgment are based on claims that would be recoverable pursuant to the . . . policy." Langevin, 2013 ME 55, ¶ 8, 66 A.3d 585 (quotation marks omitted); see 24-A M.R.S. § 2904. If the language of an insurance policy is unambiguous, we interpret it in accordance with its plain meaning, but we "construe ambiguous policy language strictly against the insurance company and liberally in favor of the policyholder."[3] Langevin, 2013 ME 55, ¶ 9, 66 A.3d 585 (quotation marks omitted). Further, we view the language of the policy "from the perspective of an average person untrained in either the law or the insurance field in light of what a more than casual reading of the policy would reveal to an ordinarily intelligent insured." Union Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 521 A.2d 308, 310 (Me. 1987) (quotation marks omitted).

         [¶6] Kelley bears the burden of showing that the damages she was awarded in the underlying action are based on a claim that falls within the scope of Snyder's policy with North East. See Langevin, 2013 ME 55, ¶ 8, 66 A.3d 585. The policy obligated North East to indemnify Snyder for "'bodily injury' ... for which any 'insured' becomes legally responsible because of an auto accident." The policy did not define the term "auto accident." Kelley urges us to conclude that the term is broad enough to include a dog bite that occurred in or near a car because, she contends, the bite arose out of the use of a vehicle. Interpreting "auto accident" in accordance with its "plain and commonly accepted meaning, " Cookson v. Liberty Mut. Fire Ins. Co., 2012 ME 7, ¶ 8, 34 A.3d 1156 (quotation marks omitted), we conclude otherwise.

         [¶7] "Accident, " which is also undefined in the policy, is commonly understood to mean "[a]n event that is without apparent cause or unexpected; an unfortunate event, [especially] one causing injury or damage." 1 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 14 (6th ed. 2007); see Patrick v. J. B. Ham Co.,119 Me. 510, 517, 111 A. 912 (1921) ("[A]n accident is a befalling; an event that takes place without one's forethought or expectation; an undesigned, sudden, and unexpected event. Its synonyms include mishap, mischance, misfortune[, ] disaster, calamity, catastrophe."). We therefore interpret "auto accident"-an unambiguous term-to mean an unintended and unforeseen injurious occurrence involving an automobile. "[V]iewed from the perspective of an average person, " Union Mut. Fire Ins. Co.,52lA.2dat 310, the plain meaning of "auto accident"-although broader than a collision or car crash- ...

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