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First Liberty Insurance Corp. v. Walker

United States District Court, Third Circuit

November 5, 2013

THE FIRST LIBERTY INSURANCE CORPORATION, Plaintiff,
v.
APRIL WALKER, et al. Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

YOHN, J.

This action arises out of a neighborhood dispute among residents at the Neshaminy Hills Camp Association (“Neshaminy Hills”). Defendants Alan and Joy Franklin (“the Franklins”) brought two separate actions in state court against their neighbor, April Walker (“Walker”)[1], for damage to their property. Plaintiff, First Liberty Insurance Corporation (“First Liberty”), filed this suit seeking a declaratory judgment as to its duty to defend and indemnify Walker. Before me is First Liberty’s motion for summary judgment, Walker’s response, and First Liberty’s reply. For the following reasons, First Liberty’s motion for summary judgment will be granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

A. Procedural History

On December 6, 2012, First Liberty filed a complaint with this court seeking a declaratory judgment that First Liberty has no duty to defend or indemnify Walker against complaints filed by the Franklins in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. On January 9, 2013, the Franklins filed an answer. On January 30, 2013, Walker filed an answer with counterclaim against First Liberty. On February 6, 2013, First Liberty moved to dismiss Walker’s counterclaim, which was granted by the court on March 7, 2013. On March 15, 2013, defendants Neshaminy Hills, Gordon and Marge Walker, Donald Poust, Christine Snyder, and Margaret Czarnik were dismissed from this action by stipulation, and Anna Czykora[2] was dismissed by court order on March 19, 2013.

On July 11, 2013, First Liberty filed this motion for summary judgment. Walker filed a response opposing summary judgment on July 31, 2013, and First Liberty replied on August 5, 2013.

B. Factual Background

Neshaminy Hills was a summer camp retreat that grew like Topsy into an unconventional development of permanent residences. The land, consisting of seventy-three individual lots, is owned by Neshaminy Hills, and leased to its members through long-term leaseholds. (Franklin Dep. 10:3-11:15.) Ownership is, therefore, limited to the structure built on the land and does not pass through ordinary title, with boundaries clearly defined. (Franklin Dep. 75:25-76:16, 121:24-25.) Rather, the seller stands on the property and gestures “like the referee in a football game, ” pointing out the approximate property boundaries. (Franklin Dep. 77:5-21, 91:3-16.) Because of the informal development of the camp, many of the properties are landlocked, requiring the leaseholders to cross over each others’ property to access their homes. (Franklin Dep. 73:21-25.)

In October 2004, the Franklins leased lot 53 from Neshaminy Hills and purchased the house located on the lot from James and Holly Hunt. (Franklin Dep. 10:3-9.) The description of the leased property was simply: “Camp Site No. 53 located on what is known as the Camping Ground indicated on ‘Map’ showing property of Neshaminy Hills Camp Association, Lower Southampton Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania.” (Am. Compl. Ex. C, Franklin Lease.) At the time the Franklins leased their lot, there was a bridge over a stream that accessed a patch of land shared by lot 53, and the adjoining lot 54. (Franklin Dep. 11:16-18.) At all times relevant hereto lot 54 was leased by Walker. (Walker Dep. 11:16-25.) For the twelve years he leased lot 53, prior to transferring his leasehold to the Franklins, James Hunt drove over this bridge and driveway, directly to his home. (Am. Compl. Ex. D, Hunt Statement.) When they leased lot 53, the Franklins believed they too would be permitted to drive over the bridge and driveway directly to their home. (Franklin Dep. 11:7-12:21.) And for three and a half years after leasing lot 53, the Franklins drove, without incident, across the bridge, and over the driveway that led directly to their leased property. (Franklin Dep. 12:7-10.) They also parked their car on this driveway, again without incident. (Franklin Dep. 12:7-10.) Prior to leasing lot 53, the Franklins never learned the legal boundaries of the lot, nor did they ever officially inquire about their right to drive over the bridge or the driveway to their property. (Franklin Dep. 12:22-13:10.)

During these three and a half years, the Franklins also made various improvements to the leased property, including the driveway. (Franklin Dep. 63:21-64:5.) They leveled off the land to create a flat surface, installed two stone benches, constructed stone steps to more easily navigate a steep incline, adorned those steps with an artistic hand railing, and landscaped the property around the driveway. (Franklin Dep. 63:21-65:10.) The collective improvements cost an estimated $20, 000. (Franklin Dep. 63:17-20.) As per the Neshaminy Hills bylaws, prior to making these improvements, the Franklins secured permission from the association. (Am. Compl. Ex. C, 5/31/07 letter from the Franklins to Don Poust.)

Sometime after the Franklins completed the improvements to the property, a survey was conducted to learn the boundaries of the Franklins’ property. (Am. Compl. Ex. C., 8/22/07 memorandum from Frank Forant to Stanton C. Kelton.) The Franklins’ property sat between lot 54, Walker’s lot, and a second lot leased by Anna Czykora. The survey determined that the driveway leading from the bridge to the Franklins’ home ran across Walker’s property. (Franklin Dep. 114:10-16.) The survey also showed that the large stone steps the Franklins installed, with the accompanying hand railing, were partially on Czykora’s property. (Franklin Dep. 21:19-22:6, 70:4-72:18.)

Thereafter, Neshaminy Hills voted to permit Walker to landscape her property “anyway [she] wanted to keep [the Franklins] from accessing [the driveway].” (Walker Dep. 42:12-16; Am. Compl. Ex. C, 3/22/09 letter from Chistina Snyder to the Franklins.) Acting on this permission, Walker, with other members of Neshaminy Hills, used heavy “machinery” to place two large boulders across the bridge, eliminating vehicle access across the bridge to the driveway. (Walker Dep. 42:22-44:24; Franklin Dep. 61:13-62:13.) By letter dated June 5, 2009, Neshaminy Hills also informed the Franklins that Anna Czykora requested and had been granted permission to, among other things, “remove walkway/steps built by the Franklins from her lot” and “remove rusty metal artwork put in place by the Franklins that is on Anna’s lot.” (Am. Compl. Ex. C., 6/5/09 letter from Tina Davis to the Franklins.) Thereafter, unknown persons removed the part of the stone steps and accompanying artistic hand-railing that were on Czykora’s property, as permitted by the Neshaminy Hills letter, and placed the items on the Franklins’ property. (Franklin Dep. 32:2-34:19, 62:21-66:10.)

In response to these acts, the Franklins filed two separate actions in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas. (Am. Compl. Ex. C.) The first was filed on September 1, 2009, an amended complaint was filed on October 20, 2009, and a second amended complaint was filed on January 26, 2010. (Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. E). This second amended complaint alleged that the Franklins leased lot 53 with a “prescriptive access easement.” (Bucks County Second Amend. Compl. (hereinafter “Bucks Compl.”) ¶ 3.) It further alleged that, after the Franklins completed the approved improvements as described above, Neshaminy Hills “then voted to remove the improvements.” (Bucks Compl. ¶ 6.) Thereafter, various named defendants “barricaded [the Franklins’] access easement with boulders” and “used a chain to prohibit [the Franklins] from using their access easement.” (Bucks Compl. ¶¶ 8-9.) Finally, the complaint alleges that some of the defendants “have harassed and intimidated [the Franklins] by using harassing and anti-Semitic language, as well as verbal and physical intimidation.” (Bucks Compl. ¶ 10.)

With regard to Walker, specifically, the complaint alleges three separate counts for invasion of privacy (Count X), private nuisance (Count XI) and punitive damages (Count XII). (Bucks Compl. ¶ 74-85.) Count X alleges that Walker “invaded [the Franklins’] privacy by trespassing onto [the Franklins’] property and damaging landscaping, the outdoor stairway and ancillary amenities.” (Bucks Compl. ¶ 75.) It further alleges that Walker’s acts constitute an “intentional interference” with the Franklins’ quiet enjoyment of their home. (Bucks Compl. ¶ 76.) Count XI alleges that Walker “interfered with [the Franklins’] property by trespassing” onto the property “and damaging landscaping, the outdoor stairway and ancillary amenities.” (Bucks Compl. ¶ 79.) Count XI further alleges that Walker “intentionally and unreasonably, or negligently or recklessly engaged in abnormally dangerous conduct” by blocking the Franklins’ access to the driveway, because the blocked driveway could create a “safety hazard” in the event that “an emergency situation occurs.” (Bucks Compl. ¶¶ 80-81.) Count XII alleges that Walker’s conduct was “reckless and/or outrageous” rising to the “level required to seek punitive damages.” (Bucks Compl. ¶ 85.)

The Franklins filed a separate action on March 25, 2010 against Walker and various members of Neshaminy Hills, requesting an injunction requiring the removal of the boulders barricading the driveway and that the driveway be returned to its pre-existing condition. (Am. Compl. Ex. D.) Both actions were consolidated on September 3, 2010. (Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. E.) The actions are pending.

In response to the Franklins’ complaints, Walker filed a claim with her homeowner’s insurance provider, First Liberty. Following Walker’s insurance claim, First Liberty retained defense counsel for Walker throughout the initial discovery phase. (Pl.’s Mot. Summ. J. ¶ ...


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