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Lee Jones v. Unitrin Auto and Home Insurance Company

February 6, 2012


Appeal from the Order entered February 4, 2011 in the Court of Common Pleas of Fayette County Civil Division at No(s): 3481 of 2009, G.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mundy, J.

J. A34022/11



Appellant, Lee Jones, appeals from the order entered February 4, 2011, granting the motion for summary judgment filed by Unitrin Auto and Home Insurance Company (Unitrin) in Appellant's declaratory judgment action wherein she sought a determination of her eligibility for underinsured motorist benefits. After careful review, we conclude that, by inclusion of additional language, the underinsured motorist insurance (UIM) rejection form contained in Appellant's insurance application failed to specifically comply with statutory requirements and was therefore void. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

The trial court summarized the pertinent undisputed facts and procedural history as follows.

On or about December 14, 2009 [Appellant] commenced the present action by filing a complaint against [Unitrin and George Durst Insurance Agency]. In the complaint, [Appellant] set forth a declaratory judgment action and a class action against Unitrin as well as a negligence action against George Durst Insurance Agency.

On or about July 9, 2009, [Appellant] was a named insured pursuant to a Unitrin motor vehicle policy, number HB865793, which was issued subject to the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (hereinafter "MVFRL"). On the aforesaid date, [Appellant] was injured while she was a passenger in a motor vehicle due to the negligence of a third party tortfeasor. The damages suffered by [Appellant] as a result of the motor vehicle accident exceeded the liability limits for the tortfeasor's vehicle. Pursuant to MVFRL, Unitrin was required to provide uninsured motorist (hereinafter "UM") and underinsured motorist ("UIM") coverage in an amount equal to the liability coverage to its insureds, unless a valid rejection form was executed by the named insured. [Appellant] alleges that the Unitrin rejection form executed by her for UIM coverage did not comply with Section 1731(c.1) of MVFRL and thus was not valid.

Unitrin filed its motion for summary judgment to [Appellant's] declaratory judgment action on May 13, 2010. Oral argument was held before [the trial c]court on August 13, 2010.

Trial Court Opinion, 2/4/11, at 2-3; Certified Record (C.R.) at 24.

The trial court granted Unitrin's motion for summary judgment by order and accompanying memorandum opinion filed February 4, 2011. C.R. at 24. On February 22, 2011, Appellant filed a praecipe to discontinue, with prejudice, its case against George Durst Insurance Agency. C.R. at 25.

Thereafter, on February 28, 2011, Appellant filed a notice of appeal. C.R. at 26.*fn1

On appeal, Appellant raises the following questions for our review.

I. Is the insurer's uninsured/underinsured

("UM/UIM") rejection form void as it adds language regarding stacking which does not comply with the mandated rejection form contained in section 1731?

II. Is there a factual issue which precludes summary judgment as to whether Unitrin Auto and Home Insurance Company's deviation from the statutorily-required language in its UIM rejection form was confusing to the claimant?

Appellant's Brief at 4.

When reviewing a trial court's decision to grant a motion for summary judgment, we adhere to the following standard and scope of review.

We view the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party. Only where there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and it is clear that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law will summary judgment be entered. Our scope of review of a trial court's order granting or denying summary judgment is plenary, and our standard of review is clear: the trial court's order will be reversed only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or abused its discretion.

Erie Ins. Exchange v. Larrimore, 987 A.2d 732, 736 (Pa. Super. 2009) (citation omitted). Additionally, we note, "[o]rdinary summary judgment procedures are applicable to declaratory judgment actions." Keystone Aerial Surveys, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Property & Cas. Ins. Guar. Ass'n, 777 A.2d 84, 88 (Pa. Super. 2001) (citation omitted), affirmed, 829 A.2d 297 (Pa. 2003).

Resolution of this matter requires interpretation of section 1731 of the MVFRL, which is a pure question of law. "As the issue in this case is a question of law, our standard of review is de novo and our scope of review is plenary." Vanderhoff v. Harleysville Ins. Co., 997 A.2d 328, 333 (Pa. 2010). With respect to statutory construction of the MVFRL, we are further guided in our review by the following principles.

Overall, the MVFRL ... is to be construed liberally in order to promote justice and to give effect to its objects. One of the objects of the MVFRL to be effected by this liberal construction is affording the injured claimant the greatest possible coverage. We must remain mindful that in close or doubtful cases, we must interpret the intent of the legislature and the language of insurance policies to favor coverage for the insured.

Larrimore, supra at 740 (quotation marks and citations omitted). "[T]he rules of statutory construction require that 'whenever possible each word in a statutory provision is to be given meaning and not to be treated as surplusage.'" Winslow-Quattlebaum v. Maryland Ins. Group, 752 A.2d 878, 881 (Pa. 2000), quoting 1 Pa.C.S.A. § 1921(a).

Appellant first argues that the UIM rejection form contained in her policy application with Unitrin is void for failure to comply with section 1731 of the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL).*fn2 Appellant's Brief at 7. Specifically, Appellant faulted the UIM rejection form used by Unitrin in her policy application for impermissibly ...

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