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Peters v. Nat'l Interstate Ins. Co.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 16, 2014


Page 39

Appeal from the Order Entered September 10, 2013 in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County. Civil Division at No.: August Term, 2011, No. 3268.



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Appellants, National Interstate Insurance Company, and Evans Delivery Company, Inc., appeal from the order declaring that Appellees, Michael Peters and Malinda Peters, husband and wife, and Robert Weston, guardian of Jaden Peters (the Peters' minor daughter), Ohio residents, could make a claim against National Interstate for under-insured motorist benefits (UIM) pursuant to the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility

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Law (MVFRL)[1] for an accident in Ohio.[2] Appellees have no legally enforceable claim for UIM under Pennsylvania law. Accordingly, we vacate the order, reverse the trial court's determination of coverage, and remand.

There is no significant dispute about the underlying history of the case. The parties entered into a joint stipulation of facts. (See Joint Stipulations at Certified Docket Entry No. 47; Memorandum Opinion, 9/10/13, at 2-7; R.R. at R-148a-R-158a). We summarize the facts most relevant to our analysis.

The accident occurred in Kent County, Ohio, on August 21, 2009. (See Joint Stipulation of Facts [Stipulation], ¶ 3). Both Michael Peters, the driver, and his minor daughter, Jaden, who was traveling with him as a passenger, were seriously injured in the accident.[3] At the time of the accident Michael Peters, an Ohio resident, was employed as a truck driver by Evans Delivery, a Pennsylvania corporation. National Interstate issued a commercial vehicle policy to Evans Delivery in Pennsylvania.

The truck Michael Peters was driving was registered in Ohio and not principally garaged in Pennsylvania. (See id. at ¶ 5). The other driver, Matthew Knecht, hit the Peters' vehicle head-on. Knecht had insufficient insurance coverage to satisfy the Peters' entire damages claim. Knecht's insurer paid the policy limits of $200,000.00. The parties here stipulated that the Peters' damages substantially exceed $200,000.00. (See id. at ¶ 18, ¶ 19).

Appellees made a UIM claim pursuant to the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL)[4] against National Interstate under the Evans Delivery commercial vehicle policy.[5] (See First Amended Action for Declaratory Judgment, ¶ 33, ¶ 40). National Interstate refused coverage. (See Stipulation ¶ 21; First Amended Action for Declaratory Judgment, ¶ 34). Appellees brought the underlying complaint, seeking a declaratory judgment of coverage. They alleged that the form signed by Evans Delivery, rejecting UIM, was " invalid, illegal and void[.]" (First Amended Action for Declaratory Judgment, ¶ 51).

The trial court held a non-jury trial on June 17, 2013. The trial consisted of argument only. Neither of the parties called any witnesses, or offered additional evidence, relying on the Joint Stipulation and the Joint Trial Exhibits, plus the amended complaint for declaratory judgment and

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the answer. (See N.T. Trial, 6/17/13, at 4-5; see also Trial Court Opinion, 9/10/13, at 1). The trial court filed an opinion and order on September 10, 2013. In essence, the trial court reasoned that because the policy offered " no information on how the premium for UM/UIM was calculated . . . its terms are ambiguous and therefore must be construed in favor of the [Appellees]." (Trial Ct. Op., 9/10/13, at 12; Trial Ct. Op., 2/18/14, at 13). Appellants filed a motion for post trial relief, which the court denied, after oral argument, on December 23, 2013. This timely appeal followed.[6]

Appellants present one over-arching generic question and seven subsidiary questions for our review:[7]

Did the trial court abuse its discretion and commit an error of law by:
1. Holding that an alleged ambiguity in the calculation of the premium charged for uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage in states that required a mandatory minimum amount of coverage was equivalent to an ambiguity in the terms of the contract and scope of coverage offered under the policy that must be resolved against the [A]ppellants-insurer and named insured[?]
2. Holding that the intent of the Appellants was not clear[?]
3. Declaring that blanket underinsured motorist coverage existed under the commercial motor vehicle insurance policy number EDC 81600000 00 issued by [A]ppellant National Interstate Insurance Company to [A]ppellant Evans Delivery Company, Inc.[?]
4. Declaring that underinsured motorist benefits under the subject policy equaled the liability limits of $1,000,000[?]
5. Misconstruing the issue of whether [A]ppellees had standing to challenge [A]ppellant Evans Delivery's waiver of UIM coverage under the policy[?]
[6]. Failing to address whether the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility law applied to [A]ppellees['] vehicle registered in Ohio[?]
7. Failing to declare that the rejection of UIM coverage form for Pennsylvania was valid and enforceable[?]

(Appellants' Brief, at 3-4).

We note our standard of review, and related legal principles applicable to that review:

Our standard of review in a declaratory judgment action is limited to determining whether the trial court clearly abused its discretion or committed an error of law. We may not substitute our judgment for that of the trial court if the court's determination is supported by the evidence.
[w]e will review the decision of the lower court as we would a decree in equity and set aside the factual conclusions

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of that court only where they are not supported by adequate evidence. The application of the law, however, is ...

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