American Family Ins. Group v. Schroedl

Decision Date24 August 2000
Docket NumberNo. C7-99-428.,C7-99-428.
Citation616 N.W.2d 273
PartiesAMERICAN FAMILY INSURANCE GROUP, petitioner, Appellant, v. Harold L. SCHROEDL, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Rider, Bennett, Egan & Arundel, LLP, Eric J. Magnuson, Jeanne H. Unger, Minneapolis, for appellant.

Blomquist & Espeset, Robert V. Espeset, Barry L. Blomquist, Minneapolis, for respondent.

Lommen, Nelson, Cole & Stageberg, P.A., Kay Nord Hunt, Minneapolis, amicus curiae for The Insurance Federation of Minnesota.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

OPINION

PAGE, Justice.

Respondent, Harold Schroedl, suffered a severe closed-head injury when he was hit by a car on December 6, 1997. Because of the accident, Schroedl was incapacitated and resided in a nursing home until he died in December 1998. Although Schroedl was retired at the time of the accident, he owned income-producing rental property that he managed and maintained. Because he was incapacitated after the accident, he was no longer able to maintain the rental property. As a result, Schroedl's son and others were hired and paid to maintain the property. At the time of his injuries, Schroedl had an automobile insurance policy with appellant, American Family Insurance Group. Schroedl filed a no-fault insurance claim with American Family for "replacement services" or, in the alternative, a claim for wage loss to recover the amount expended hiring his son and others to maintain the rental property. American Family denied Schroedl's claim, contending that when Schroedl purchased the no-fault insurance policy from American Family, he elected to exclude coverage for "work loss" and that the exclusion was still in effect on December 6, 1997.

After American Family's denial of the claim, the matter proceeded to arbitration. The arbitrator ruled that Schroedl was entitled to recover income loss benefits and that those benefits were not barred by his insurance policy's "work loss" exclusion. In addition, the arbitrator noted that American Family had not complied with its responsibility under Minn.Stat. § 65B.491 to inquire about Schroedl's need for wage loss reimbursement coverage. American Family appealed to the district court, which vacated the arbitrator's award based on its finding that Schroedl's policy with American Family specifically excluded "work loss" benefits from coverage. Schroedl appealed and the court of appeals reversed, holding that American Family had an ongoing statutory duty to inquire whether Schroedl needed wage loss reimbursement coverage and, having failed to make such inquiry, was precluded from denying coverage.

In 1992, at the age of 72, Schroedl purchased the initial policy from American Family. Consistent with the no-fault insurance scheme, the policy provided mandatory benefits for basic economic loss as required by Minn.Stat. § 65B.49. Basic economic loss benefits encompass income loss benefits including "costs incurred by a self-employed person to hire substitute employees to perform tasks which are necessary to maintain" income. Minn.Stat. § 65B.44, subd. 3 (1998). Income includes wages, see Minn.Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 6 (1998), and loss means "economic detriment resulting from the accident" and includes losses resulting from replacement services. Minn.Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 7 (1998).

Minnesota Statutes § 65B.491 provides an exception to the mandatory basic economic loss benefits required by section 65B.49. Section 65B.491 provides that:

[N]o plan of reparation security issued to or renewed with a person who has attained the age of 65 years may provide coverage for wage loss reimbursement that the insured will not reasonably be expected to be able to receive. It is the responsibility of the person issuing or renewing the plan to inquire as to the applicability of this section.1

Id.

In its effort to comply with the provisions of Minn.Stat. § 65B.491, the American Family application Schroedl filled out when he applied for the initial plan contained the following provision:

EXCLUSION OF WORK LOSS UNDER PERSONAL INJURY PROTECTION COVERAGE * * * *
I also acknowledge and agree that I have been given the opportunity to exclude Work Loss Coverage under the Minnesota Personal Injury Protection (PIP) Endorsement and I select to: (Check Only One Box)
[] Keep work loss
[] Exclude work loss
* * * *
I understand and agree that this acknowledgement of coverage selection or rejection of * * * work loss * * * will apply until I subsequently request a change in writing.

In filling out the application, Schroedl checked the "Exclude work loss" option and did not, during the initial policy period or at any subsequent renewal, request a change in writing.

I.

This case asks us to resolve three questions. First, we are asked to decide whether it is the insurer or the insured that is required under Minn.Stat. § 65B.491 to make the ultimate decision with respect to the insured's need for wage loss reimbursement coverage. Second, we are asked to decide whether section 65B.491 requires an insurer to inquire as to the insured's need for wage loss reimbursement coverage at each renewal of a plan of reparation security after the insured has reached the age of 65. Finally, we are asked to decide whether Schroedl's expenditures for maintenance of his rental property during his incapacity resulting from the automobile accident are recoverable under section 65B.491. Each of these questions requires us to engage in statutory construction. Therefore, our review is de novo. See Boutin v. LaFleur, 591 N.W.2d 711, 714 (Minn.1999) (citing In re Blilie, 494 N.W.2d 877, 881 (Minn.1993)), cert. denied sub nom. Boutin v. Hvass, ___ U.S. ___, 120 S.Ct. 417, 145 L.Ed.2d 326 (1999).

When interpreting a statute, we first look to see whether the statute's language, on its face, is clear or ambiguous. See Amaral v. Saint Cloud Hosp., 598 N.W.2d 379, 384 (Minn.1999). "A statute is only ambiguous when the language therein is subject to more than one reasonable interpretation." Id. Basic canons of statutory construction instruct that we are to construe words and phrases according to their plain and ordinary meaning. See Frank's Nursery Sales, Inc. v. City of Roseville, 295 N.W.2d 604, 608 (Minn. 1980). A statute should be interpreted, whenever possible, to give effect to all of its provisions; "no word, phrase, or sentence should be deemed superfluous, void, or insignificant." Amaral, 598 N.W.2d at 384 (citing Owens v. Federated Mut. Implement & Hardware Ins., 328 N.W.2d 162, 164 (Minn.1983)). We are to read and construe a statute as a whole and must interpret each section in light of the surrounding sections to avoid conflicting interpretations. See Van Asperen v. Darling Olds, Inc., 254 Minn. 62, 73-74, 93 N.W.2d 690, 698 (1958); see also Erickson v. Sunset Mem'l Park Ass'n, 259 Minn. 532, 543, 108 N.W.2d 434, 441 (1961). Finally, courts should construe a statute to avoid absurd results and unjust consequences. See Erickson, 259 Minn. at 543,108 N.W.2d at 441. When construing a statute, our goal is to ascertain and effectuate the intention of the legislature. See Amaral, 598 N.W.2d at 385-86.

While statutory construction focuses on the language of the provision at issue, it is sometimes necessary to analyze that provision in the context of surrounding sections. See Van Asperen, 254 Minn. at 74, 93 N.W.2d at 698; Erickson, 259 Minn. at 543, 108 N.W.2d at 441. This is one of those cases. The operation of Minn.Stat. § 65B.491 only becomes clear when it is read in conjunction with the rest of the No-Fault Act. See generally Minnesota No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act, Minn.Stat. §§ 65B.41-65B.71 (1998). Therefore, we begin our discussion with a brief review of the Minnesota No-Fault Automobile Insurance Act.

The Act's purpose is to relieve "the severe economic distress of uncompensated victims of automobile accidents within this state." Minn.Stat. § 65B.42, subd. 1 (1998). To ensure that the Act's purpose is met, an insurer may not provide less coverage than that required by the Act. See Hertz Corp. v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 573 N.W.2d 686, 689-90 (Minn. 1998). The "`insurer's liability is governed by the contract between the parties only as long as coverage required by law is not omitted and policy provisions do not contravene'" the Act. Id. (quoting Streich v. American Family Mut. Ins. Co., 358 N.W.2d 396, 399 (Minn.1984)); see American Nat'l Property & Cas. Co. v. Loren, 597 N.W.2d 291, 292 (Minn.1999). The Act mandates, with one limited exception, that basic economic loss benefits be included in every plan of reparation security. See Minn.Stat. § 65B.49, subd. 2;2 Minn.Stat. § 65B.491. Basic economic loss benefits include income loss benefits. See Minn.Stat. § 65B.44, subd. 3. Wage loss reimbursement is a subset of income loss benefits. See generally Minn.Stat. § 65B.43, subds. 6-7.

Under limited circumstances, the Act precludes a plan of reparation security from including coverage for wage loss reimbursement. Those circumstances are found in Minn.Stat. § 65B.491, which provides that:

[N]o plan * * * issued to or renewed with a person who has attained the age of 65 years may provide coverage for wage loss reimbursement that the insured will not reasonably be expected to be able to receive. It is the responsibility of the person issuing or renewing the plan to inquire as to the applicability of this section.

Id. (emphasis added). The language categorically prohibits an insurer from providing coverage for wage loss reimbursement to an insured who is 65 years of age or older and who will not reasonably be expected to be able to receive "a benefit" from the coverage. See id.

Of note is the fact that the language of sections 65B.49 and 65B.491 places the burden on the insurer to either include or exclude coverage for wage loss reimbursement, for it is the insurer and only the insurer who provides the plan of reparation security. The language of section 65B.491 does not make...

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