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State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Dooner

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

June 4, 2018


          Appeal from the Order Entered August 2, 2017 In the Court of Common Pleas of Monroe County Civil Division at No(s): 3140 CIVIL 2016



          BENDER, P.J.E. JUDGE

         Appellant, Jean A. Fonte, appeals from the August 2, 2017 order granting summary judgment in favor of Appellee, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"). After careful review, we affirm.

         The trial court summarized the following undisputed facts and procedural background of this case in its August 2, 2017 opinion:[1]

Prior to the evening of May 15, 2014, Erin C. Dooner [("Ms. Dooner")] and [Appellant] [] were involved in a romantic relationship. While traveling in [Ms.] Dooner's vehicle, the couple was involved in a one[-]car accident. [Ms.] Dooner had a motor vehicle insurance policy number 173-0212-A08 through [State Farm's] company. Because of this accident, [Ms.] Dooner was arrested and taken to the Monroe County DUI Center. [Appellant] then retrieved her own vehicle, a 2004 Dodge Stratus, in order to pick up [Ms.] Dooner from the DUI Center sometime after midnight on May 16, 2014. [Appellant's] vehicle was insured by an automobile policy through Progressive Advanced Insurance [Company] (hereinafter "[Progressive]"). As [Appellant] was driving the couple home, they began to fight. [Appellant] claims [Ms.] Dooner struck her in the face. As the fight continued, [Ms.] Dooner grabbed the bottom of the steering wheel and jerked it. This caused the Dodge Stratus to swerve into oncoming traffic and collide head-on with a police cruiser. The police cruiser was operated by Jeffrey J. Kowalski (hereinafter "[Officer] Kowalski"). Gary J. Fedorczyk (hereinafter "[Officer] Fedorczyk") was a front seat passenger in the police vehicle at the time of the accident.
[Appellant] and [Officer] Kowalski, along with his wife, have filed lawsuits in this [c]ourt against [Ms.] Dooner relating to the accident. These suits are respectively filed at 3416 CV 2014 and 1859 CV 2016. On April 27, 2016, [State Farm] filed a Complaint for Declaratory Judgment stating that it has no duty to defend, indemnify, or otherwise provide liability coverage to [Ms.] Dooner under [its] insurance policy. On May 30, 2017, [State Farm] filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. There is also a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by [] Progressive currently pending before the [c]ourt in 3140 CV 2016. Oral argument was not held in this matter and a decision [was] rendered based upon the submissions of the parties.

Trial Court Opinion ("TCO"), 8/2/17, at 1-2.

         On August 2, 2017, the trial court entered an order granting State Farm's motion for summary judgment and finding that State Farm does not owe a duty of coverage in this case. Appellant filed a timely notice of appeal on August 25, 2017, followed by a timely, court-ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) concise statement of errors complained of on appeal. Herein, Appellant raises the following issue for our review:

Did the trial court abuse its discretion and commit error by granting [s]ummary [j]udgment on behalf of [State Farm], improperly determining that State Farm did not owe a duty of coverage to [its] insured[, ] [Ms.] Dooner, and all parties who suffered injuries through [Ms.] Dooner's negligence, thus misapplying case law and relevant precedent?

Appellant's Brief at 5.

         Our standard of review with respect to a trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion for summary judgment is as follows:

A reviewing court 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.
In evaluating the trial court's decision to enter summary judgment, we focus on the legal standard articulated in the summary judgment rule. Pa.R.C.P. 1035.2. The rule states that where there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to relief as a matter of law, summary judgment may be entered. Where the non-moving party bears the burden of proof on an issue, he may not merely rely on his pleadings or answers in order to survive summary judgment. Failure of a nonmoving party to adduce sufficient evidence on an issue essential to his case and on which it bears the burden of proof establishes the entitlement of the moving party to judgment as a matter of law. Lastly, we will view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all doubts as to the existence of a genuine issue of material fact must be resolved against the moving party.

Byoung Suk An v. Victoria Fire & Cas. Co., 113 A.3d 1283, 1287-88 (Pa. Super. 2015) (citation omitted). Additionally, we note that the interpretation of an insurance policy is a question of law that we will review de novo. See Rourke v. Pennsylvania Nat. Mut. Cas. Ins. Co., 116 A.3d 87, 91 (Pa. Super. 2015).

         Here, Appellant avers that Ms. Dooner's policy with State Farm "provides coverage for a 'non-owned car' if the car is in lawful possession of you or any resident relative." Appellant's Brief at 12 (emphasis in original). Appellant further notes that the policy is silent with respect to the definition of the terms "possession" and "lawful." Thus, she concludes that the policy is ambiguous and must, therefore, be construed in her favor. Id. (citing Madison Construction Company v. Harleysville Mutual Insurance Company, 735 A.2d 100, 106 (Pa. 1999) (stating that where a provision of an insurance policy is ambiguous, the policy provision is to be construed in favor of the insured and against the insurer)). After careful review of the record, we deem Appellant's claim to be wholly without merit.

         We begin our analysis by setting forth well-established rules of insurance contract interpretation. "The task of interpreting [an insurance] contract is generally performed by a court rather than by a jury." Madison Construction, 735 A.2d at 106 (Pa. 1999).

The goal in construing and applying the language of an insurance contract is to effectuate the intent of the parties as manifested by the language of the specific policy. When the language of an insurance policy is plain and unambiguous, a court is bound by that language. Alternatively, if an insurance policy contains an ambiguous term, the policy is to be construed in favor of the insured to further the contract's prime purpose of indemnification and against the insurer, as the insurer drafts the policy, and controls coverage. Contract language is ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to more than one construction and meaning. Finally, the language of the policy must be construed in its plain and ordinary sense, and the policy must be read in its entirety.

Pennsylvania Nat. Mut. Cas. Ins. Co. v. St. John, 106 A.3d 1, 14 (Pa. 2014) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). See also Wagner v. Erie Ins. Co., 801 A.2d 1226, 1231 (Pa. Super. 2002) (adding that when construing a policy, we may inform our understanding of words of common usage by considering their dictionary definitions). Moreover, a court "will not find a particular provision ambiguous simply because the parties disagree on the proper construction; if possible, it will read the provision ...

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