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AETNA CAS. & SUR. v. STATE FARM MUT. AUTO. INS.

August 20, 1991

AETNA CASUALTY & SURETY CO., PLAINTIFF
v.
STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE CO., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: D. Brooks Smith, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM ORDER

Before the Court at this time is plaintiff Aetna Casualty and Surety Company's Motion to Amend Judgment (docket no. 22A), which seeks judgment in Aetna's favor, notwithstanding a jury's verdict in favor of defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. Aetna sought indemnification from State Farm for a claim that it paid under its uninsured motorist's coverage after State Farm disclaimed liability coverage to the alleged driver of a State Farm insured automobile. After review of the record, the Court denies Aetna's motion.

The circuits are split on the question whether the standard for review of a motion for j.n.o.v. in a diversity matter is dictated by federal procedural law or state substantive law. Compare Miles v. Tennessee River Pulp and Paper Co., 862 F.2d 1525 (11th Cir. 1989) (federal); Foster v. Ford Motor Co., 616 F.2d 1304 (5th Cir. 1980) (federal); Oldenburg v. Clark, 489 F.2d 839 (10th Cir. 1974) (federal); with J.C. Wyckoff & Assoc. v. Standard Fire Ins. Co., 936 F.2d 1474 (6th Cir. 1991) (state law); Fort Howard Paper Co. v. Standard Havens, Inc., 901 F.2d 1373 (7th Cir. 1990) (state law). The Third Circuit has held that there is no difference between federal and Pennsylvania law on this point. Vizzini v. Ford Motor Co., 569 F.2d 754, 757-58 (3d Cir. 1977). It is necessary therefore to "determine whether, as a matter of law, the record is critically deficient of that minimum quantum of evidence from which a jury might reasonably afford relief." id. (citation omitted).

The evidence presented at trial showed that on August 8, 1987, Milton R. Seiler was struck by an automobile and killed while walking across a roadway in Allegheny County's South Park. Mr. Seiler had uninsured motorist's coverage through a policy issued by Aetna. The automobile which struck Seiler was driven by Mona Dobbins, and was leased by Ms. Dobbins' employer, the Brookline Social Club.*fn1 The automobile was insured by State Farm with liability limits of $100,000/$300,000.

Ms. Dobbins left the scene of the accident after striking Seiler without identifying herself, and was later charged with several motor vehicle code offenses, including homicide by vehicle. 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732 (Purdons 1991 Supp.). Ms. Dobbins retained an attorney to defend herself in the criminal prosecution. When State Farm investigators investigating the death of Mr. Seiler requested a statement from her concerning the accident, Ms. Dobbins referred them to her attorney, who advised State Farm that she would not give any statement to State Farm because of its potential to incriminate her. The criminal defense attorney did tell State Farm's representative that he was willing to have Ms. Dobbins interviewed by a defense attorney retained by State Farm who could advise State Farm whether it owed a duty to defend and indemnify Ms. Dobbins in any civil action. State Farm rejected this option.

Criminal charges against Ms. Dobbins were ultimately dismissed or withdrawn because of insufficient evidence identifying her as the driver of the vehicle which struck Mr. Seiler. Because the charges were not disposed of after jeopardy attached they could have been refiled against Ms. Dobbins until the statute of limitations ran on August 8, 1989. See 42 Pa.C.S. § 5552(a) (Purdons 1991 Supp.). Compare the current statute of limitations, id., § 5551(5).

The representative of Mr. Seiler's estate filed a civil suit against Ms. Dobbins in December, 1987. State Farm had sent Ms. Dobbins a reservation of rights letter on August 24, 1987, and did not appoint counsel to defend her in the civil suit. Ms. Dobbins' criminal defense attorney may have entered an appearance in that suit, but because Ms. Dobbins was judgment proof she had no great concern for the outcome of that action. N.T. 204-05. Mr. Seiler's estate obtained a default judgment against Ms. Dobbins on February 21, 1989. On March 20, 1989, and March 27, 1989, State Farm sent letters to Ms. Dobbins, denying coverage under its liability policy issued to the Brookline Social Club and refusing to defend or indemnify her because of her refusal to cooperate with State Farm's investigation.

After State Farm denied coverage, the representative of Mr. Seiler's estate submitted an uninsured motorist's claim to Mr. Seiler's insurer, Aetna. A panel of arbitrators heard the evidence of negligence, comparative negligence, and damages, and awarded Mr. Seiler's estate $156,000. Aetna thereafter filed this action, seeking indemnity from State Farm for the full $156,000 it paid to the estate.

At trial, State Farm defended its disclaimer of coverage for Ms. Dobbins on two grounds: (1) that Ms. Dobbins was not a permissive user of the automobile and (2) that Ms. Dobbins breached the cooperation clause of State Farm's policy. State Farm's lack of permissive use defense was based on the rather weak evidence of a statement at the coroner's inquest shortly after the accident by Frank Torchia, the owner of the Brookline Social Club, that implied that Ms. Dobbins was not permitted to drive the vehicle at the time of the accident. N.T. 130, 133, 180; See N.T. 260. The jury properly rejected this theory of defense.

The jury found, however, that Ms. Dobbins had breached her duty to cooperate with State Farm and that State Farm had suffered substantial prejudice as a result. With respect to the breach of the cooperation clause defense, Pennsylvania law provides that for a disclaimer of coverage to be valid the insurer must prove (1) that the putative insured breached its duty to cooperate in the insurer's investigation and defense of a claim, and (2) that the insurer suffered substantial prejudice as a result. Paxton National Ins. Co. v. Brickajlic, 513 Pa. 627, 522 A.2d 531 (1987); Brakeman v. Potomac Insurance Company, 472 Pa. 66, 371 A.2d 193 (1977); Cameron v. Berger, 336 Pa. 229, 7 A.2d 293 (1939). State Farm's defense on this point was that the evidence of the identity of the driver and the comparative negligence of Mr. Seiler were disputed issues and the absence of any statement by the alleged driver of the vehicle which struck Mr. Seiler materially impaired State Farm's ability to defend against any civil claim by the Seiler estate. The Court charged the jury on this defense, N.T. 311-12, and repeated the instruction on the definition of substantial prejudice at the request of the jury. N.T. 322-26.

Aetna first seeks a ruling that as a matter of law Ms. Dobbins has a Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination which excuses her from any contractual duty to cooperate in the investigation of defense of a civil claim. Aetna submits in support only Wojna v. Merchants Ins. Group, 119 Misc.2d 734, 464 N.Y.S.2d 664, 666 (1983) and 2423 Mermaid Realty v. New York Property Ins., 142 A.D.2d 124, 534 N.Y.S.2d 999 (1988). Not only is neither case binding authority, neither is persuasive authority because the rationale offered in Wojna — that a third party should not be deprived of liability coverage by an insured's failure to cooperate — is inapplicable here. Aetna seeks indemnity for a claim paid to the Seiler estate, not subrogation to a claim by the Seiler estate against State Farm. The Seiler estate has been compensated and its interest in liability coverage protected by Pennsylvania's mandatory uninsured motorist's coverage.

More importantly, Aetna's argument that a Fifth Amendment privilege trumps the insurance policy's duty to cooperate requirement falls of its own weight. A person may not be penalized for asserting the Fifth Amendment privilege against self incrimination, but that does not mean that if a person refuses to make a statement in a civil proceeding that the failure to provide evidence may not have adverse consequences. See Peiffer v. Lebanon School District, 848 F.2d 44 (3d Cir. 1988). In Peiffer, a school board refused to grant a school district employee a postponement of a disciplinary hearing pending the disposition of criminal charges against the employee arising out of the same incident. The Court of Appeals held that the facts that the employee chose to remain silent and that the evidence presented without his statement led the school district to discharge him did not permit the conclusion that the employee's Fifth Amendment rights were violated. To the same effect, the Ninth Circuit held in Sherman v. Babbitt, 772 F.2d 1476 (9th Cir. 1985), that a motorist's criminal conviction for failure to give proof of financial responsibility upon request by a police officer did not violate the Fifth Amendment. That Court stated: "The statute does not compel Sherman to produce an insurance certificate but gives him the choice to comply or to refuse and face the attendant penalties." 772 F.2d at 1478 (emphasis in original). It is also settled law that a civil litigant's assertion of the Fifth Amendment permits an adverse inference against the litigant with respect to the matter for which the privilege is claimed. See Hudak v. Woods, 743 F. Supp. 374, 377 (W.D.Pa. 1990) (Lee, J.). Aetna advances no persuasive reason why an assertion of the Fifth Amendment should expose the person claiming the privilege to adverse consequences in judicial proceedings but give blanket immunity to the claimant in other contexts.

As the Supreme Court stated in United States v. Rylander, 460 U.S. 752, 759, 103 S.Ct. 1548, 1553, 75 L.Ed.2d 521 (1983), allowing a litigant to be held in civil contempt despite his asserting the Fifth Amendment privilege as a defense to responding to questions concerning compliance with an IRS subpoena:

  That the defendant faces such a dilemma demanding a
  choice between complete silence and presenting a
  defense has never been thought an invasion of the
  privilege against compelled self-incrimination.
  (quoting Williams v. Florida, 399 ...

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