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[U] Wolfe v. Ross

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 24, 2013

THERESA M. WOLFE, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF KEVIN T. WOLFE, Appellant
v.
ROBERT ROSS, Appellee
v.
STATE FARM FIRE AND CASUALTY COMPANY, Appellee

NON-PRECEDENTIAL DECISION

Appeal from the Order Entered June 21, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Butler County Civil Division at No(s): 10-30444

BEFORE: BOWES, DONOHUE, and MUNDY, JJ.

MEMORANDUM

BOWES, J.

Theresa M. Wolfe, Administratrix of the Estate of Kevin T. Wolfe, ("Administratrix"), appeals from the trial court's grant of summary judgment in favor of State Farm Fire and Casualty Company ("State Farm") and its corresponding denial of her motion for summary judgment in this garnishment action. The issue before us is whether the motor vehicle exclusion in Robert Ross's homeowner's policy with State Farm operates to preclude recovery on the facts herein. The trial court concluded that it did. After careful review, we affirm.

Administratrix commenced this civil action for wrongful death and survival against Robert Ross. She alleged the following. In late June 2002, Mr. Ross was the host of a graduation party at his residence at which alcoholic beverages were furnished or made available to nineteen-year-old Kevin Wolfe. Kevin became impaired due to alcohol consumption, and he left the party on a dirt bike owned by Mr. Ross's son, Justin Ross. Complaint, ¶8. "As a direct and proximate result of the impairment caused by the alcohol, " the decedent's "vehicle left the road and struck a stationary object." Id. Kevin suffered fatal injuries in the collision. All allegations against Mr. Ross sounded in negligence and arose from the furnishing of alcohol to the minor.

State Farm, Mr. Ross's homeowner's carrier, refused to defend the claim and denied coverage based on the policy's exclusion for injuries arising out of the maintenance and use of a motor vehicle owned by an insured. Prior to trial, the parties agreed that a $200, 000 consent judgment would be entered against Mr. Ross. Mr. Ross assigned to Administratrix all of his rights under his homeowner's policy with State Farm, including the right to sue the insurer for breach of contract and bad faith. Administratrix agreed to forego execution against any other assets of Mr. Ross, and to accept any verdict or settlement from any proceeding against State Farm in full satisfaction of the judgment.

On March 8, 2010, the $200, 000 judgment was entered in favor of Administratrix, and she proceeded via garnishment against State Farm to attempt to collect the proceeds of Mr. Ross's homeowner's policy. State Farm and Administratrix stipulated to certain facts. It was agreed that, "The plaintiff's decedent, while operating a motor vehicle, struck a fixed object off the insured location, and suffered fatal injuries in the collision." Joint Stipulation ¶ 3. "[Administratrix] contends that coverage is afforded under the terms of the State Farm policy, because [her] decedent died as a direct and proximate result of the impairment caused by the alcoholic beverages allegedly furnished and/or made available to him at a graduation party for Ross' son, which was hosted by Ross, which was covered under the State Farm policy, the policy limits of which are $100, 000.00." Id. at ¶ 12. "Ross denied that alcohol was provided to the guests, and State Farm contends that even if furnishing alcohol otherwise were covered, the fact that the decedent's death arose out of the operation of a motor vehicle triggers an exclusion which precludes coverage." Id. at ¶ 13. Finally, the parties stipulated that "this case is now ripe for a decision as to whether there is coverage for Ross under the State Farm policy for the claims made in the underlying lawsuit[.]"[1] Id. at ¶ 16.

Both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of State Farm, and denied same as to Administratrix. Administratrix appealed and filed a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) concise statement of errors complained of on appeal, and the trial court issued its Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) opinion.

Administratrix presents two issues:
A. Whether the trial court erred in failing to find that the motor vehicle exclusion in a homeowner's insurance policy was ambiguous in that it did not state whether the injury must be proximately caused by use of the motor vehicle or simply causally connected with use of the motor vehicle.
B. Whether the trial court erred in failing to find that the motor vehicle exclusion in a homeowner's insurance policy was inapplicable to claims where the motor vehicle was operated by the victim and where the only claim of negligence against the insured was that he had negligently furnished alcoholic beverages to the underage operator of the vehicle.

Appellant's brief at 4.

In reviewing the grant of summary judgment, we "may disturb the order of the trial court only where it is established that the court committed an error of law or abused its discretion. As with all questions of law, our review is plenary." Murphy v. Duquesne University, 777 A.2d 418, 429 (Pa. 2001) (citations omitted). "Our purpose in interpreting insurance contracts is to ascertain the intent of the parties as manifested by the terms used in the written insurance policy." Babcock & Wilcox Co. v. Am. Nuclear Insurers & Mut. Atomic Energy Liab. Underwriters, 2013 PA.Super. 174 *23. Where the contract language is clear and unambiguous, we must give effect to that language unless it violates a clearly expressed public policy. Adamitis v. Erie Ins. Exch., 54 A.3d 371 (Pa.Super. 2012). A policy provision is ambiguous only when it is "reasonably susceptible of different constructions and capable of being understood in more than one sense" when applied to a particular set of facts. Allstate Fire and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Hymes, 29 A.3d 1169, 1172 (Pa.Super. 2011). Where a policy provision is ambiguous, it is to be construed in favor of the insured and against the insurer. Penn-America Ins. Co. v. Peccadillos, Inc., 27 A.3d 259, 265 (Pa.Super. 2011) (en banc).

Herein, State Farm bases its defense on a policy exclusion. Thus, the burden is on the insurer to establish its application. Donegal Mut. Ins. Co. v. Baumhammers, 938 A.2d 286, 290 (Pa. 2007).

The homeowner's policy in question provides that

If a claim is made or a suit is brought against an insured for damages because of bodily injury or property damage to which this coverage applies, caused by an occurrence, we will:
1. pay up to our limit of liability for the damages for which the insured is legally liable.
7. "Occurrence, " when used in Section II of this policy, [Exclusions] means an accident, including exposure to ...

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