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Bonk v. American States Insurance Co.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

October 1, 2019

JOHN W. BONK and DONNA M. BONK, Husband and Wife, Plaintiffs,


          A. Richard Caputo United States District Judge

         Presently before me is the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 16) filed by Defendant American States Insurance Company (“American States”). In the matter sub judice, Plaintiff John Bonk (“Bonk”) claims that American States breached the terms of an automobile insurance policy by denying payment on his claim for underinsured motorist benefits following a motor vehicle accident with an underinsured third-party tortfeasor. American States argues here that in executing a release with the third-party tortfeasor, Bonk released all claims, including those asserted against it in this litigation. Because Bonk did not discharge American States under the language of the release, the motion for summary judgment will be denied.

         I. Background

         On December 15, 2014, Bonk was injured in a motor vehicle accident on Route 11 in Plymouth, Pennsylvania when he was a passenger in a truck operated by his brother, Alfred Bonk. (See Bonk Dep., 33:5-34:8). His brother's truck was hit from behind at a red light. (See id. at 34:6-12). That accident was caused by the negligent acts and omissions of Yasmin Pascual (“Pascual”). (See Def.'s SMF, ¶ 8).[1] At the time of the accident, Alfred Bonk's vehicle was insured under a motor vehicle insurance policy (the “Policy”) issued by American States, which included underinsured motorist benefits. (See Def.'s Ans., ¶ 6).

         Bonk filed a claim against Pascual for responsibility for the accident, and that claim was settled for $25, 000.00. (See Bonk Dep., 73:16-74:14). As part of the resolution of that claim, Bonk and his wife signed a “Release of All Claims” (the “Release”). (See id. at 75:1-77:1; see also Def.'s Ans., Ex. “2”). When he signed the Release, Bonk was represented by counsel. (See Bonk Dep., 77:2-11). While he is unable to recall whether he had any questions about the Release, Bonk indicated that if he did he would have asked his counsel. (See id. at 78:1-8). Bonk believes he probably read the Release before signing it, but he could not recall the date the Release was signed or where he was located when he signed the Release. (See id. at 75:22-76:23).

         The Release provides, in relevant part:

This Indenture Witnesseth that we in consideration of the sum of Twenty Five Thousand and 00/00 dollars ($25, 000), receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged, do hereby for our heirs, personal representatives and assign, release and forever discharge Yasmin Pascual and any other person, firm or corporation charged or chargeable with responsibility of liability, their heirs, representative or assigns, form [sic] any and all claims, demands, damages, costs, expenses, loss of service, action and causes of action arising from any act or occurrence up to the present time, and particularly on account of all personal injury, disability, property damage, loss or damage of any kind sustained or that we may hereafter sustain in consequence of an accident that occurred on or about the 15th day of December, 2014, at or near East Main Street, Plymouth Boro, PA.

(Def.'s Ans., Ex. “2”).

         After resolving the claim with Pascual, Bonk and his wife Donna commenced this action by filing a two-Count Complaint for breach of contract and loss of consortium against American States and SAFECO Insurance in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania on November 14, 2018. (See Doc. 1, Ex. “A”, generally). The action was removed to this Court on December 21, 2018, (see Doc. 1, generally), and the parties subsequently stipulated to proceeding with American States as the lone Defendant in this case. (See Doc. 5, generally). Donna Bonk also voluntarily dismissed her claim against American States. (See Docs. 14-15, generally).

         On August 16, 2019, American States moved for summary judgment based on its view that the release executed by Bonk discharged the claims against it as well. (See Docs. 16-17, generally). Bonk opposes the motion, arguing that the release was specific to Pascual, American States was not privy to the cause of action or settlement, and that the language of the Release only contemplates individuals or entities affiliated with Pascual. (See Doc. 19, 4-5). American States replies that the Release is clear, it does not limit or narrow the parties that are released, and the Release encompasses Bonk's UIM claim against it. (See Doc. 20, generally). The motion for summary judgment is thus fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment shall be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A court may grant a motion for summary judgment if, after it considers all probative materials of record, with inferences drawn in favor of the non-moving party, the court is satisfied that there are no genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Chavarriaga v. N.J. Dep't of Corrs., 806 F.3d 210, 218 (3d Cir. 2015) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 330, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2556, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Brooks v. Kyler, 204 F.3d 102, 105 n.5 (3d Cir. 2000)). “A fact is ‘material' under Rule 56 if its existence or nonexistence might impact the outcome of the suit under the applicable substantive law. A dispute over a material fact is ‘genuine' if ‘a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'” Santini v. Fuentes, 795 F.3d 410, 416 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). “In determining whether the dispute is genuine, the court's function is not to weigh the evidence or to determine the truth of the matter . . . .” American Eagle Outfitters v. Lyle & Scott Ltd., 584 F.3d 587, 581 (3d Cir. 2009) (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49, 106 S.Ct. 2505).

         The moving party bears the initial burden to identify “specific portions of the record that establish the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Santini, 795 F.3d at 416 (citing Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553). If this burden is satisfied by the movant, the burden then “shifts to the nonmoving party to go beyond the pleadings and ‘come forward with specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. (quoting Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986)). The nonmovant's burden is not satisfied by “simply show[ing] that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Chavarriaga, 806 F.3d at 218.

         III. ...

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