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MYRTIL v. HARTFORD FIRE INS. CO.

April 15, 1981

Odette MYRTIL a/k/a Odette Myrtil Logan, an incompetent person, by her legal guardian Bucks County Bank & Trust Company
v.
HARTFORD FIRE INSURANCE CO. v. Charles W. HAGER, IV. CHEZ ODETTE, INC. v. HARTFORD FIRE INSURANCE CO. v. Charles W. HAGER, IV



The opinion of the court was delivered by: DITTER

ADJUDICATION

These two diversity actions for declaratory judgment were brought to determine whether Odette Myrtil Logan (Myrtil) was covered under a homeowner's insurance policy issued to her by defendant, Hartford Fire Insurance Company. The cases were tried jointly and without a jury. For the reasons which follow, I conclude that coverage existed under Myrtil's homeowner's policy.

 The facts of this case are not really in dispute and, for the most part, have been agreed to by stipulation of counsel. Chez Odette, Inc., a restaurant located in New Hope, Pennsylvania, was owned and operated by Myrtil. On Sunday, August 24, 1969, she had a party at a house she rented from Mr. and Mrs. Emlen Etting at Loveladies Harbor, New Jersey. *fn1" The party, given for employees of Chez Odette, their guests, and other business-related persons and their guests, was informal and its planned activities included ocean bathing, using a swimming pool, game playing, and eating. Myrtil annually held a party for her employees, but this was the first year it was held at this particular location. Although she used the shore as a place for weekend rest and relaxation, Myrtil said that the giving of this party was a part of running her restaurant.

 One of those present on the day in question was Charles W. Hager, IV, who was not an employee of Chez Odette. He was the husband of a former employee of the restaurant and the son-in-law of a present employee. Sometime during the afternoon, Hager dove into a canal adjacent to the property and was seriously and permanently injured. He brought suit in Pennsylvania against the Ettings, Myrtil, and Chez Odette, and recovered 1.8 million dollars. On appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, finding reversible error, ordered a new trial. Hager v. Etting, 268 Pa.Super. 416, 408 A.2d 856 (1979). The matter has not as yet been retried.

 On the date of the accident, Myrtil had a homeowner's insurance policy and Chez Odette had a general liability policy, both in the amount of $ 300,000., and both issued by Hartford. Defendant admitted coverage under the corporate policy, but disclaimed under the homeowner's policy. It contended that Hager's claim against Myrtil was excluded from protection under the homeowner's policy by its "business pursuits" clause which provides:

 
This policy does not apply to bodily injury or property damage arising out of business pursuits of any Insured except activities therein which are ordinarily incident to non-business pursuits.

 Plaintiffs brought these two declaratory judgment actions asking me to conclude that defendant owed coverage to Myrtil under her homeowner's policy. *fn2" The arguments advanced by plaintiffs are two-fold: (1) the business pursuits exclusion is not applicable to the facts of this case; and (2) defendant is estopped from denying coverage. For the reasons which follow, I hold that the business pursuits exclusion does not preclude coverage and that defendant was obligated to protect Myrtil under her homeowner's policy. *fn3"

 As the Third Circuit recently stated, "the rules relating to the analysis of insurance policies in Pennsylvania are well established." Eastern Associated Coal Corp. v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 632 F.2d 1068, 1075 (3d Cir. 1980). *fn4" Where, as here, an insurer seeks to disclaim coverage under an insurance policy by invoking an exclusionary provision, it bears the burden of proving that the exclusion is applicable to the particular case. Daburlos v. Commercial Insurance Co., 521 F.2d 18, 24 (3d Cir. 1975); Weissman v. Prashker, 405 Pa. 226, 175 A.2d 63 (1961). "Moreover, exceptions to the general liability of the insurer are to be strictly construed against the insurance company." Frisch v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 218 Pa.Super. 211, 214, 275 A.2d 849, 851 (1975) (emphasis added). Thus, if the denial of coverage under Myrtil's homeowner's policy is to be sustained, the defendant must affirmatively show that the business pursuits exclusion is applicable under the circumstances present here. It has not done so for two principal reasons.

 As with any other contract, the court, in examining a contract of insurance, must first ascertain the intent of the parties from the language used in the agreement. Mohn v. American Casualty Co., 458 Pa. 576, 326 A.2d 346, 351 (1974). If the plain and ordinary language of the contract permits, the court should read policy provisions so as to avoid ambiguities. Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association Insurance Co. v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 426 Pa. 453, 457, 233 A.2d 548, 551 (1967). A court "should not torture the language of the policy in order to create ambiguities where none otherwise exist." Treasure Craft Jewelers v. Jefferson Insurance Company, 583 F.2d 650, 652 (3d Cir. 1978).

 A "provision of an insurance policy is ambiguous if reasonably intelligent men on considering it in the context of the entire policy would honestly differ as to its meaning," Celley v. Mutual Benefit & Health Association, 229 Pa.Super. 475, 324 A.2d 430, 434 (1974), or if the terms of the policy are "reasonable susceptible of more than one interpretation." C. H. Heist Caribe Corp. v. American Home Assurance Co., 640 F.2d 479 at 481 (3d Cir. 1981). Where an ambiguity does exist, "(it) is settled that ... (it) must be construed against the insurer, and in a manner which is more favorable to coverage." Buntin v. Continental Insurance Co., 583 F.2d 1201, 1207 (3d Cir. 1978) (emphasis in original) (citations omitted). As the court stated in Frisch, supra:

 
Stated more fully, the rule is that, where, by reason of ambiguity in the language employed in a policy or contract of insurance, there is doubt or uncertainty as to its meaning and it is fairly susceptible of two interpretations, one favorable to the insured and the other favorable to the insurer, the former will be adopted, or, as has been stated, the policy will be construed in favor of the insured in order not to defeat, without plain necessity, a claim to indemnify which was the insured's object to obtain.

 218 Pa.Super. at 214, 275 A.2d 849 (citations omitted). This rule of strict construction against the insurer is especially true should the ambiguity exist as an exception to general liability. Celley v. Mutual Benefit & Health Association, supra, 324 A.2d at 434. With these principles in mind, I conclude that Myrtil's homeowner's policy is ambiguous and, for this reason, coverage must be extended to her by the defendant.

 The business pursuits exclusion at issue here consists of two clauses: the first states that "this policy does not apply to bodily injury ... arising out of business pursuits of any Insured." This prong of the exclusion is clearly not ambiguous and I find that Myrtil was engaged in a business pursuit in holding a party for her business associates at her shore home.

 The ambiguity arises from the exception to the broad exclusion for business pursuits. This exception provides that even if an insured is engaged in a business pursuit, coverage exists for "activities therein which are ordinarily incident to non-business pursuits." The parties, of course, differ in their understanding of the meaning of this exception. Defendant's interpretation is that "the activity, to be an exception to the exclusionary clause, must be one which is not associated with or related in any way to the insured's business pursuits." Defendant states that whether the "activity" referred to in the exception was Hager's dive into the lagoon, or Myrtil's failure to warn Hager, or Myrtil's failure otherwise to supervise the activities of the guests at the party, the "activity" was associated with Myrtil's business pursuit, her party. Defendant argues, therefore, that since plaintiffs have not shown that Hager had any conceivable connection with Myrtil other than a business-related ...


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