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State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. v. Lavanture

May 16, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sylvia H. Rambo United States District Judge


Before the court is Defendants Michael LaVanture and Richard LaVanture, Jr.'s (hereinafter "the LaVanture Defendants") motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), Plaintiff State Farm Mutual Insurance Company's declaratory judgment action. (Doc. 8.) The parties have briefed the issue and the motion is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the LaVanture Defendants' motion to dismiss.

I. Background

On March 19, 2004, Defendant Stanley Trzaska and his wife Grace Trzaska were involved in a motor vehicle accident with Defendant Michael LaVanture. As a result of the accident, Grace Trzaska died. Stanley Trzaska, in his own right and as the Executor of the Estate of Grace Trzasak, filed suit against the LaVanture Defendants in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas. Defendant Richard LaVanture, Jr. holds an automobile insurance policy with Plaintiff, under which the LaVanture Defendants are covered.

On December 6, 2005, Plaintiff filed a declaratory judgment action with this court. Plaintiff asks the court to define its contractual rights and duties under the automobile insurance policy issued to Defendant Richard LaVanture, Jr. Specifically, Plaintiff asks the court to declare that it does not have a duty to indemnify the LaVanture Defendants with respect to Count VIII (loss of consortium) and Count IX (negligent infliction of emotional distress) of the state action. Plaintiff's request is based on its interpretation of the insurance policy language and state law.

On March 13, 2006, the LaVanture Defendants filed the instant motion, seeking dismissal of Plaintiff's declaratory judgment action.

II. Legal Standard

The Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 2201, 2202, affords a district court "unique and substantial discretion in deciding whether to declare the rights of litigants." Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 286 (1995). The Supreme Court has characterized the Declaratory Judgment Act as "an enabling Act, which confers a discretion on the courts rather than an absolute right upon the litigant." Id. at 287 (internal quotations omitted) (citations omitted). Thus, under the Declaratory Judgment Act, district courts wield broad and selective discretion in determining whether and when to entertain a declaratory judgment action. Id. at 283.

III. Discussion

The LaVanture Defendants argue that Plaintiff's declaratory judgment action should be dismissed because the action does not present any federal issues, it deals exclusively with unsettled state law, and an underlying action is already pending in state court. In support of it their motion, the LaVanture Defendants rely upon State Automobile Insurance Co. v. Summy, 234 F.3d 131 (3d Cir. 2000). Plaintiff counters that the issues pending before this court are distinct from the issues pending before state court and that Summy is limited to its facts, which are distinguishable fromthose of the instant action. For the reasons that follow, the court finds the LaVanture Defendants' arguments to be convincing, and will grant their motion.

A. Applicability of Summy and the Court's Discretion to Decline Jurisdiction

Before the court addresses the logic of Summy, it must first address Plaintiff's argument that Summy is distinguishable from the instant case. The court recognizes that facts of the instant matter differ from those in Summy; however, the logic of Summy is not limited to its facts. The Summy court provided that "where district courts must decide whether to hear declaratory judgment actions involving insurance coverage issues, we have suggested the relevant considerations." Id. 234 F.3d at 134. The language utilized by the Summy court indicates that the Third Circuit intended to expand the perimeter of applicability beyond Summy's facts to generally include those cases where a district court has discretion to hear a declaratory judgment action. See id. at 134-36 (discussing relevant considerations in the context of actions involving insurance coverage issues). Therefore, the first question for this court to consider is whether it has discretion to hear the instant matter. A district court is divested of discretion to not hear a declaratory judgment action "when the issues include[] federal statutory interpretation, the government's choice of a federal forum, an issue of sovereign immunity, or inadequacy of the state proceeding." Id. at 134 (citing United States v. Pennsylvania, Dep't of Envtl. Res., 923 F.2d 1071, 1075 (3d Cir. 1991). The court finds that the instant case does not present any of the enumerated considerations; thus, the jurisdiction conferred upon this court by the Declaratory Judgment Act is discretionary and not compulsory. Brillhart v. Excess Ins. Co. of Am., 316 U.S. 491, 494 (1942); Summy, 234 F.3d at 133.

B. Considerations for Declining to Exercise Jurisdiction

Having determined that the court's jurisdiction is discretionary, the court now turns to Summy's enumerated factors that a district court should consider when deciding whether to decline exercising jurisdiction over an action brought under the Declaratory Judgment Act.*fn1 To begin, the Summy court reviewed the history of the Declaratory Judgment Act and specifically enumerated three relevant considerations that weigh in favor of a district ...

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