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Stonington Insurance Co. v. Dardas

July 20, 2010

STONINGTON INSURANCE COMPANY
v.
PETER G. DARDAS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sánchez, J.

MEMORANDUM

Defendant Peter G. Dardas was injured while operating a tow truck insured by Plaintiff Stonington Insurance Company and seeks coverage from Stonington. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, each asserting there are no disputed material facts as to whether a Stonington insurance policy owned by Dardas's employer covers injuries Dardas suffered in a March 21, 2007 accident. Because Dardas's injuries are covered by his employer's Stonington motor vehicle policy, summary judgment is granted in favor of Dardas and against Stonington.

FACTS

The facts of this case are not in dispute. On March 21, 2007, the date of the accident, Dardas was employed by Berks-Mont Towing & Recovery and was acting within the course and scope of his employment. Dardas was driving a tow truck owned by Berks-Mont and insured under a Pennsylvania motor vehicle insurance policy issued by Stonington (the Policy). He was towing a box truck owned by Akins Auto Sales and traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

As Dardas drove, a fire developed in the engine of his tow truck and the cab began to fill with smoke. He pulled over and attempted to extinguish the fire, but he was unsuccessful. As Dardas attempted to extinguish the flames, another driver, Omar Ortiz, approached Dardas and offered to help him remove the box truck from the bed of the Berks-Mont tow truck to save the box truck from damage. Dardas accepted his offer.

The two men decided to use Ortiz's tow truck to pull the box truck off of the wheel lift of the Berks-Mont tow truck. Dardas unlocked the box truck from the Berks-Mont tow truck by removing the safety straps. He prepared to enter the box truck through the driver's door so he could steer the truck and apply the brakes, if necessary, while Ortiz pulled the box truck off of the Berks-Mont tow truck. As Dardas opened the box truck's door, Ortiz, without warning, began pulling the box truck off of the tow truck's wheel lift and onto the shoulder of the highway. As the box truck moved toward Dardas, the open driver's door struck him in the leg. Dardas suffered serious injuries, including a massive hematoma in his leg.

Despite his injuries, Dardas continued removing items from the tow truck until a fire marshal instructed him to stop retrieving items from the vehicle. After the accident, Dardas applied for and received workers' compensation benefits under coverage provided by Berks-Mont. He also presented a claim to Stonington for Underinsured Motorist Benefits under the Policy and filed suit against Ortiz's towing company, Noah Towing, Inc. Stonington denied Dardas's claim and filed a complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that Dardas's injuries are not covered by the Policy because he was not occupying the truck under the policy's definition.

DISCUSSION

The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment asking this Court to declare whether Dardas is covered by the Stonington policy. This Court "may declare the rights and other legal relations" between Stonington and Dardas. 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). "The standard for granting summary judgment on a request for a declaratory judgment is the same as for any other type of relief." Cloverland-Green Spring Dairies, Inc. v. Pa. Milk Mktg. Bd., 298 F.3d 201, 210 n.12 (3d Cir. 2002) (citations omitted). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(c) provides that summary judgment shall be granted "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." In reviewing a motion for summary judgment, a court "must view all evidence and draw all inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Lawrence v. City of Philadelphia, 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir. 2008) (citations omitted). "This rule is no different when there are cross-motions for summary judgment."*fn1 Id.

The moving party "bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)). In the instant case, the parties have stipulated there are no genuine issues of material fact, and they ask this Court to declare whether Dardas's injury is covered by the Stonington motor vehicle insurance policy issued to Berks-Mont, Dardas's employer.*fn2

Stonington argues Dardas's injury is not covered by the Pennsylvania Underinsured Motorist Coverage (UIM) section of the Policy because he was not "occupying" the insured vehicle at the time of the accident. The UIM section limits coverage to individuals "occupying" a covered motor vehicle.*fn3 Dardas contends he was "occupying" the vehicle and thus qualifies as an "insured" under the policy. The parties agree the tow truck Dardas drove is a "covered vehicle" under the Policy. The sole issue, therefore, is whether Dardas occupied the Berks-Mont tow truck at the time of his injury.

Under Pennsylvania law, interpretation of the word "occupying" in motor vehicle insurance policies "focuses upon whether the person claiming benefits was performing an act (or acts) which is (are) normally associated with the immediate 'use' of the auto." Utica Mut. Ins. Co. v. Constriciane, 473 A.2d 1005, 1009 (Pa. 1984).*fn4 The Utica court held that "when a person is engaged in the lawful use of an insured vehicle, he will be considered to be 'occupying' that vehicle within the meaning of the policy" when the following four factors are met:

(1) there is a causal relation or connection between the injury and the use of the insured vehicle;

(2) the person asserting coverage [was] in a reasonably close geographic proximity to the insured vehicle, although the person ...


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