Almeida v. Travelers Ins. Co.

Decision Date31 March 1981
Citation418 N.E.2d 602,383 Mass. 226
PartiesAntone S. ALMEIDA v. The TRAVELERS INSURANCE COMPANY.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Richard T. Corbett, Medford, for defendant.

Thomas P. Gay, Taunton, for plaintiff.

Before HENNESSEY, C. J., and BRAUCHER, KAPLAN, WILKINS and ABRAMS, JJ.

HENNESSEY, Chief Justice.

In a civil action in the Superior Court, the plaintiff Antone S. Almeida, claiming under a "limited collision" policy as defined in G.L. c. 90, § 34O, prevailed against The Travelers Insurance Company (Travelers). Travelers appeals, contesting specifically the Superior Court ruling that certain trial matters were res judicata 1 as a result of a previous determination by the Board of Appeal on Motor Vehicle Liability Policies and Bonds (board) that Travelers had improperly imposed a surcharge on Almeida. We agree with the Superior Court judge and conclude that in a subsequent civil action the board's surcharge determination precludes relitigation of the issues underlying that determination. We affirm.

The parties agreed to the following facts. On March 14, 1978, a vehicle owned by Antone S. Almeida was damaged in a collision of motor vehicles. Almeida was insured under a standard Massachusetts motor vehicle liability policy issued by Travelers which provided limited collision coverage for the vehicle. Subsequent to the collision, Almeida presented a claim to Travelers, seeking payment under the limited collision provisions of his policy for the damages sustained by the vehicle. Almeida's limited collision coverage, defined by statute, provides that the insurer shall pay the full amount of damages sustained to the insured vehicle, "provided the negligence attributable to (the) insured is fifty per cent or less." G.L. c. 90, § 34O, as appearing in St.1976, c. 266, § 7.

After consideration, Travelers denied Almeida's claim because it determined that Almeida was more than fifty per cent at fault. Travelers also imposed a surcharge in accordance with the "merit rating" provisions of G.L. c. 175, § 113P, as amended through St.1979, c. 192, which require that "(a)fter any collision, limited collision or property damage liability claim has been filed, the insurer shall determine whether the insured should be surcharged in accordance with (the) rules for determining fault in excess of fifty per cent to be promulgated by the board of appeals on motor vehicle policies and bonds ...."

After notification from Travelers of the imposition of a surcharge, Almeida filed a complaint which, in effect, was an appeal to the board of Travelers' determination that Almeida was surchargeable. A hearing was held in accordance with the provisions of G.L. c. 175, § 113P. At that hearing, a determination was made by the hearings officer that the surcharge was not imposed in accordance with the standards of fault promulgated by the board, and Travelers was ordered to rescind the surcharge. Subsequent to the rescission of the surcharge, Almeida renewed his claim of payment under the limited collision provision of his insurance policy. Travelers again denied his claim.

After this second denial, Almeida commenced a small claims action against Travelers for payment of the damages sustained to his vehicle. When the small claims action was called for trial, Almeida presented a motion for partial summary judgment, pursuant to Dist./Mun.Cts.R.Civ.P. 56 (1975). The motion was directed only to the liability aspect of the case. The motion sought to foreclose Travelers from contesting liability since, it was advanced, the board's revocation of the surcharge acted as a bar and conclusively established that Almeida was not more than fifty per cent negligent. This motion was allowed by the court and incorporated in its findings. The judge thereupon tried the matter as to damages only and found damages in the amount of $750. Pursuant to G.L. c. 90, § 34O, he imposed a penalty of $500 upon Travelers and awarded attorney's fees of $350. Travelers appealed the matter to the Superior Court, under the provisions of G.L. c. 218, § 23. At the trial of the action in the Superior Court, the findings of the District Court judge were adopted by the presiding judge. He ruled that the finding and order of the board precluded Travelers from relitigating the issue whether Almeida was at fault in excess of fifty per cent. Travelers appealed, and we transferred the case to this court on our own motion.

Almeida contends that the determination by the board (regarding whether a surcharge was properly imposed) operates to preclude relitigation of his percentage of fault in a subsequent action between Travelers and himself. We note the similarities between the two determinations here in question. Almeida has a "limited collision" policy with Travelers. Under that policy Travelers insured Almeida against loss in accidents in which he is fifty per cent or less at fault. G.L. c. 90, § 34O. Travelers' contractual liability therefore depends on the percentage of negligence attributable to Almeida in any collision. The same determining factor the percentage of fault attributable to Almeida will establish whether he is surchargeable for a collision. G.L. c. 175, § 113P. The percentage of fault attributable to Almeida thus determines whether he is to be reimbursed by Travelers according to their contract, and it determines whether Almeida is to be surcharged. The proceeding before the board thus established that Almeida was not at fault in excess of fifty per cent. 2

The essential elements necessary to preclude relitigation of an issue are "identity of cause of action and issues, the same parties, and judgment on the merits by a court of competent jurisdiction." Franklin v. North Weymouth Coop. Bank, 283 Mass. 275, 280, 186 N.E. 641 (1933). The only questionable elements here are the identity of the causes of action and whether the board is a "court of competent jurisdiction." However, even if the causes of action are not identical, under the doctrine of...

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