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Bristol West Ins. Co. v. Farm Family Casualty Ins. Co.

Superior Court of Maine, Piscataquis

May 18, 2018

BRISTOL WEST INS. CO., Plaintiff,
v.
FARM FAMILY CASUALTY INS. CO., Defendant.

          ORDER GRANTING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Hon. William R. Anderson Justice

         Bristol West Insurance Company ("Plaintiff) filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment against Farm Family Casualty Insurance Company ("Defendant") seeking a declaration that the insurance policy at issue does not provide coverage for Defendant's separate reach-and-apply claim against Plaintiff. (PISSC-CV-2016-004.) That case was stayed pending the outcome of this case. Plaintiff has now filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on its Complaint for Declaratory Judgment. Defendant opposed the Motion on the basis that the insurance policy at issue is ambiguous and there are genuine disputes of material fact present. The Motion is in order for decision.

         FACTS

         Plaintiff issued a Maine Personal Auto Policy (Policy No. G00 5211134 00), which had an effective policy period of February 24, 2012, through August 24, 2012, to Todd Rand. (Pl.'s Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 1.) Deborah Northrup, a friend of Mr. Rand, gave Mr. Rand permission to use her detached garage on or about February 29, 2012, at 104 Parkman Road in Wellington, Maine, in order to perform repairs to his vehicle. (Id. ¶¶ 5-7.) Mr. Rand was not renting the garage from Ms. Northrup. (Id. ¶ 7.) While he was using the garage to perform the vehicle repairs, a fire started in the garage and destroyed the garage and its contents. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         Defendant, who is Ms. Northrup's insurance company, paid her for the loss of her garage and its contents. (Id. ¶ 9.) Defendant then filed a reach-and-apply action against Plaintiff pursuant to 24-A M.R.S. § 2904 seeking to recover in the amount of $39, 034.59. (Id. ¶ 10.) Part A of Plaintiffs policy for Mr. Rand pertains to liability coverage and, under the heading of "EXCLUSIONS THAT APPLY TO PART A - LIABILITY COVERAGE," the second paragraph contains an exclusion "[f]or damage to property owned by, used by, rented to, being transported by, or in the care custody or control of an insured person." (Id. ¶ 3.) That exclusion is not applicable to "damage to a rented residence or rented private garage." (Id. ¶ 4.)

         Plaintiff filed the present declaratory judgment action pursuant to 14 M.R.S. §§ 5951-5963 seeking a judicial declaration that it is not required to indemnify and/or reimburse Defendant for any amount Defendant paid to Ms. Northrup based on the exclusion listed in the preceding paragraph. (Pl.'s Compl. 3-4.)

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is granted to a moving party where "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact" and the moving party "is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." M.R. Civ. P. 56(c). "A material fact is one that can affect the outcome of the case, and there is a genuine issue when there is sufficient evidence for a fact-finder to choose between competing versions of the fact." Lougee Conservancy v. City Mortgage, Inc., 2012 ME 103, ¶ 11, 48 A.3d 774 (quotation omitted). Courts must "consider only the portions of the record referred to and the material facts set forth in the Rule 56(h) statements" and view those facts in the light most favorable to the non- moving party. Johnson v. McNeil, 2002 ME 99, ¶ 8, 800 A.2d 702. A genuine issue exists where the jury would be required to "choose between competing versions of the truth." MP Assocs. v. Liberty, 2001 ME 22, ¶ 12, 771 A.2d 1040. However, "[s]ummary judgment is no longer an extreme remedy." Curtis v. Porter, 2001 ME 158, ¶ 7, 784 A.2d 18.

         DISCUSSION

         Plaintiff moved for summary judgment arguing that there is no genuine dispute of material fact that the insurance policy in question excludes coverage for the loss and does not provide coverage for Defendant's reach-and-apply claim against Plaintiff. The Court agrees and grants Plaintiffs requested judgment on its Complaint for Declaratory Judgment. While Defendant argues that there are genuine issues of material fact with respect to purported ambiguities within the subject policy, the Court disagrees because it finds the policy to be unambiguous and plainly excludes coverage for this loss.

         Determining whether or not contract language is ambiguous is a question of law for the Court. Apgar v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 683 A.2d 497, 498 (Me. 1996). "Contract language is ambiguous when it is reasonably susceptible of different interpretations." Portland Valve, Inc. v. Rockwood Sys. Corp., 460 A.2d 1383, 1387 (Me. 1983). Just because parties have differing views on what a contract means does not make the contract ambiguous. Champagne v. Victory Homes, Inc., 2006 ME 58, ¶ 10, 897 A.2d 803. "If a document is unambiguous, then its interpretation is also a question of law and must be determined from the plain meaning of the language used and from the four corners of the instrument without resort to extrinsic evidence." Eastwick v. Cate St. Capital, Inc., 2017 ME 206, ¶ 17, 171 A.3d 1152 (internal quotation marks omitted). When the Court interprets a contract of insurance, it must consider the entire document and it must "give force and effect to all of its provisions and not in a way that renders any of its provisions meaningless." Am. Prot. Ins. Co. v. Acadia Ins. Co., 2003 ME 6, ¶ 12, 814 A.2d 989 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         First, the exclusion at issue is not reasonably susceptible to different interpretations. In fact, while Defendant argues that term "rented" within the exclusion at issue is ambiguous, the parties actually agree on the interpretation of the exclusion. Fundamentally, they disagree whether there is a genuine dispute of material fact as to whether the exclusion-and the internal exception to the exclusion-applies in this instance. That exclusion explains that Plaintiff does not provide liability coverage under the policy "[f]or damage to property owned by, used by, rented to, being transported by, or in the care, custody or control of an insured person. This exclusion does not apply to damage to a rented residence or rented private garage." (Pl.'s Ex. A-l to Supp.'g S.M.F., at 6.)

         Defendant argues that this provision is reasonably susceptible to different interpretations because the term "rented" is not defined in the policy and can have different meanings. This argument appears to be premised on an assumption that Ms. Northrup's statement in her affidavit that Mr. Rand "was not renting the garage from" her means only that Mr. Rand did not pay monetary consideration for use of the garage. Defendant then proceeds to assert that "rented" could apply to use of property in exchange for services provided. However, Plaintiff did not cabin its proposition as to the meaning of the term "rented" in the policy solely to use of property in exchange for monetary consideration. Instead, both Plaintiff and Defendant agree that "rented" can mean monetary compensation or other forms of consideration. (See, e.g., Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. 2; Pl.'s Rep. to Mot. Summ. J. 2-3.) In any event, "rented" is not reasonably susceptible to different interpretations because it is commonly understood to encompass consideration in general. See, e.g., rent, Black's Law Dictionary 1410 (9th ed. 2009).

         What Defendant really disputes is whether Mr. Rand "rented" the garage from Ms. Northrup, which would then bring into play the exception to the exclusion in the policy. However, it is clear that there is no genuine dispute of material fact that Ms. Northrup was not renting the garage to Mr. Rand because she provided an affidavit stating as much in support of Plaintiff s Statement of Material Facts. (Pl.'s Supp.'g S.M.F. ¶ 7; Pl.'s Ex. B to Supp.'g S.M.F., at ¶ 3.) Defendant has not pointed to any evidence in the record to qualify Ms. Northrup's statement, i.e., that Mr. Rand did use the garage in exchange for some type of consideration; instead, Defendant qualifies the statement of material fact by disputing what Ms. Northrup meant when she stated that Mr. Rand "was not renting the garage from" her. See generally Dyer v. DOT,2008 ME 106, ¶ 15, 951 A.2d 821 ("Failure to properly respond to a statement of material facts permits a court to deem admitted any statements not properly denied or ...


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