375 S.W.3d 90 (Mo. 2012), SC 92202, Mendenhall v. Property and Cas. Ins. Co. of Hartford

Docket Nº:SC 92202.
Citation:375 S.W.3d 90
Opinion Judge:RICHARD B. TEITELMAN, Chief Justice.
Party Name:Ruth MENDENHALL, Appellant, v. PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY OF HARTFORD, Respondent, and Jay Walker, Defendant.
Attorney:Amy Lynn Fehr, Mark E. Goodman, Capes, Sokol, Goodman & Sarachan PC, St. Louis, for Mendenhall. John L. Hayob, Diane Hastings Lewis, Brown & Ruprecht, Kansas City, for the insurance company.
Judge Panel:RUSSELL and BRECKENRIDGE, JJ., and MOBLEY, Sp.J., concur. STITH, J., dissents in separate opinion filed; FISCHER and PRICE, JJ., concur in opinion of STITH, J. DRAPER, J., not participating. LAURA DENVIR STITH, Judge.
Case Date:July 31, 2012
Court:Supreme Court of Missouri
 
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Page 90

375 S.W.3d 90 (Mo. 2012)

Ruth MENDENHALL, Appellant,

v.

PROPERTY AND CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY OF HARTFORD, Respondent,

and

Jay Walker, Defendant.

No. SC 92202.

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc.

July 31, 2012

Page 91

Amy Lynn Fehr, Mark E. Goodman, Capes, Sokol, Goodman & Sarachan PC, St. Louis, for Mendenhall.

John L. Hayob, Diane Hastings Lewis, Brown & Ruprecht, Kansas City, for the insurance company.

RICHARD B. TEITELMAN, Chief Justice.

Ruth Mendenhall appeals a summary judgment in favor of Property and Casualty Insurance Company of Hartford (Hartford) on her equitable garnishment claim seeking insurance coverage for the death of her husband, Len Mendenhall. The trial court's judgment was premised on the conclusion that Mr. Mendenhall was an " employee" under the terms of the Hartford policy and, therefore, was excluded from coverage. The judgment is reversed because Mr. Mendenhall was a not an " employee" but was instead a " temporary worker" subject to coverage under the terms of the Hartford policy.

FACTS

In May 2006, Mr. Mendenhall interviewed for a job with the Family Center of Farmington, Inc. (Family Center). The Family Center did not hire Mr. Mendenhall. However, the person who interviewed Mr. Mendenhall for the Family Center informed Jay Walker, the owner of the Family Center, that Mr. Mendenhall would be a good candidate for a job. Based on the Family Center's recommendation, Mr. Walker hired Mr. Mendenhall to work for him personally at the cattle farm (farm) that Mr. Walker co-owned with his wife.

Mr. Mendenhall worked at the farm on an as-needed basis. Although Mr. Mendenhall was always paid by the farm, Mr. Walker occasionally asked Mr. Mendenhall to perform tasks for the Family Center. Mr. Walker also permitted Mr. Mendenhall to use a truck and trailer owned by the Family Center. This truck and trailer was covered under a business automobile liability policy (the Hartford policy) provided by Hartford and issued to the Family Center.

On March 8, 2007, Mr. Mendenhall was using the Family Center's truck and trailer to haul rock for Mr. Walker at the farm. Mr. Mendenhall was killed when the truck overturned as he was unloading the rock.

Mrs. Mendenhall filed a wrongful death suit against the Family Center and the Walkers.1 Mrs. Mendenhall dismissed her claim against Mrs. Walker and obtained an $840,000 judgment against Mr. Walker and a $50,000 judgment against the Family Center. Prior to the judgment, Mr. Walker and Mrs. Mendenhall entered an agreement pursuant to section 537.065, RSMo 2000, which provided that any judgment against Mr. Walker would be collected from the proceeds of the Hartford policy. Hartford denied any obligation to indemnify Mr. Walker for claims resulting from Mr. Mendenhall's death.

Mrs. Mendenhall then filed the underlying action for equitable garnishment to satisfy the $840,000 judgment under the coverage provided by the Family Center's Hartford policy. The Hartford policy contains an exclusion from liability coverage for employees of the insured. The definition of " employee" specifically includes a " leased worker" but does not include a " temporary worker." These two terms are defined in the Hartford policy:

" Leased worker" means a person leased to you by a labor leasing firm under an

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agreement between you and the labor leasing firm, to perform duties related to the conduct of your business. " Leased worker" does not include a " temporary worker."

...

" Temporary worker" means a person who is furnished to you to substitute for a permanent " employee" on leave or to meet seasonal or short-term workload conditions.

This policy language means that the dispositive issue is whether Len Mendenhall was an " employee" or a " temporary worker." If Mr. Mendenhall was an " employee," there is no insurance coverage. If he was a " temporary worker," there is insurance coverage.

The trial court entered summary judgment for Hartford. The court concluded that Mr. Mendenhall was excluded from coverage because he was Mr. Walker's " employee." The trial court found that Mr. Mendenhall was not a covered " temporary worker" because he was not " furnished to" Mr. Walker by an employment service or similar organization. Mrs. Mendenhall appeals.

ANALYSIS

" The interpretation of an insurance policy, and the determination whether coverage and exclusion provisions are ambiguous, are questions of law that this Court reviews de novo." Burns v. Smith, 303 S.W.3d 505, 509 (Mo. banc 2010). " Where, as here, the trial court granted summary judgment, this Court also applies a de novo standard of review." Id.

Ambiguities in the meaning of an insurance policy are resolved in favor of the insured, and exclusionary clauses are strictly construed against the drafter. Burns, 303 S.W.3d at 509. When resolving coverage ambiguities, this Court must apply the meaning that would be attached by an ordinary person of average understanding if purchasing insurance and resolve ambiguities in favor of the insured. Jones v. Mid-Century Insurance Co., 287 S.W.3d 687, 690 (Mo. banc 2009). An ambiguity exists when a phrase is " reasonably open to different constructions." Burns, 303 S.W.3d at 509.

The parties agree that Mr. Mendenhall worked for Mr. Walker to meet seasonal or short-term workload conditions and that temporary workers are covered by the Hartford policy. There is also no dispute that the phrase " furnished to" requires the involvement of a third party. See Gavan v. Bituminous Cas. Corp., 242 S.W.3d 718, 720-21 (Mo. banc 2008). Therefore, the dispositive issue is whether Mr. Mendenhall was " furnished to" Mr. Walker by the Family Center so that he qualifies as a " temporary worker" subject to coverage under the Hartford policy. Hartford asserts that the Family Center could not have furnished Mr. Mendenhall because the Family Center was not an employment agency and did not employ Mr. Mendenhall. Mrs. Mendenhall asserts that an agency or employment relationship is unnecessary and that Mr. Mendenhall was " furnished to" Mr. Walker by Family Center's referral. The issue, then, is the nature of the third party's relationship with the prospective worker.

The term " furnished to" is not defined in the policy. When interpreting insurance policy language, courts give a term its ordinary meaning unless it plainly appears that a technical meaning was intended. Farmland Indus., Inc. v. Republic Ins. Co., 941 S.W.2d 505, 508 (Mo. banc 1997). It does not appear plainly that the term " furnished to" has a precise technical meaning. Therefore, the standard English dictionary definition governs. Id.

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The standard definition of the word " furnish" is " to provide or supply with what is needed...

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