Athridge v. Aetna Cas. and Sur. Co., CIV. A. 96-2708 (RMU/JMF).

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtFacciola
Citation163 F.Supp.2d 38
PartiesThomas P. ATHRIDGE, et al., Plaintiffs, v. AETNA CASUALTY AND SURETY CO., Defendant.
Docket NumberNo. CIV. A. 96-2708 (RMU/JMF).,CIV. A. 96-2708 (RMU/JMF).
Decision Date17 September 2001
163 F.Supp.2d 38
Thomas P. ATHRIDGE, et al., Plaintiffs,
No. CIV. A. 96-2708 (RMU/JMF).
United States District Court, District of Columbia.
September 17, 2001.

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William Joseph Rodgers, Charles Belsome Long, Collier, Shannon, Rill & Scott, P.L.L.C., Washington, DC, for plaintiffs.

Lee H. Ogburn, Gertrude C. Bartel, Geoffrey H. Genth, Kramon & Graham, P.A., Baltimore, MD, for defendant.


FACCIOLA, United States Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before me on Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on Remaining Counts and Plaintiffs' Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the Issue of Indemnification. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion will be granted and plaintiffs' denied.


On July 29, 1987, Jorge Iglesias ("Jorge"), age sixteen, entered the home of his aunt and uncle ("the Rivas") who were out of the country on vacation. He found the keys to their Volkswagen Jetta and took the car. While driving the Rivas's Jetta in the District of Columbia, Jorge struck and severely injured plaintiff, Thomas Athridge ("Tommy").1 The accident generated a series of lawsuits.2 Plaintiffs brought the present action against Jorge's insurer, Aetna Casualty and Surety Company ("Aetna"), asserting theories of indemnification, tortious conduct, and unfair trade practices.

The late Judge Harold Greene, while presiding over one of these lawsuits and after learning that Jorge was contemplating bankruptcy and the consequential discharge of a substantial judgment that had been awarded to Tommy, ordered Jorge to assign whatever rights he had against Aetna to Tommy. Thus, the current complaint combines claims Tommy makes on his own behalf as well as those he makes as Jorge's assignee.

In a Memorandum Opinion and Order dated March 2, 2001,3 this Court entered summary judgment in favor of Aetna on count two of plaintiffs' amended complaint, breach of fiduciary duty and breach of the duty of due care, good faith and fair dealing. Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint

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("Pls.Amend.Comp."), ¶ 29.4 Aetna now moves for summary judgment on plaintiffs' remaining three counts: indemnification, intentional infliction of emotional distress and abuse of process, and unfair trade practices. The Athridges have filed a cross motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of indemnification.


In seeking summary judgment on the issue of indemnification, Aetna argues that it is not liable to plaintiffs because a policy exclusion operates to bar coverage in this case. Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment on Remaining Counts ("Def.Mot.") at 10. In their cross-motion for summary judgment, the Athridges contend that: 1) the "reasonable belief" exclusion that Aetna relies on does not apply to named insureds and family members like Jorge, and 2) if the exclusion does in fact apply to named insureds and family members, the exclusion is void because it is contrary to the public policy expressed in D.C.'s No-Fault statute, D.C.Code §§ 35-2101 et seq. (2001 Supp.). Plaintiffs' Cross Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the Issue of Indemnification ("Pls.Cross Mot.") at 3, 10.

A. "Reasonable Belief" Exclusion

The first issue before me is whether Exclusion No. 11 of the Aetna policy, which precludes coverage for a vehicle used "without a reasonable belief that [the driver] is entitled to do so," applies to a family member of the named insured operating the vehicle. The relevant provisions of the Aetna policy issued to Jorge's father, Jesus Iglesias, provide:5


We will pay damages for bodily injury or property damage for which any covered person becomes legally responsible because of an auto accident.

* * *

"Covered person" as used in this Part means:

1. You or any family member6 for the ownership, maintenance or use of any auto or trailer.

2. Any person using your covered auto.

* * *


We do not provide Liability Coverage:

* * *

6. For any person while employed or otherwise engaged in the business or occupation of selling, repairing, servicing, storing or parking of vehicles designed for use mainly on public highways, including road testing and delivery. This exclusion does not apply to the ownership, maintenance or use of your covered auto by you, any family member, or any partner, agent or employee of you or any family member.

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* * *

11. For any person using a vehicle without a reasonable belief that the person is entitled to do so.

The parties do not dispute that Jorge Iglesias is a "family member" of the named insured, Jesus Iglesias, and is therefore a "covered person" as defined by the policy. However, Aetna argues that the policy provides no coverage for Jorge Iglesias because Exclusion No. 11 bars coverage for any person using a vehicle without a reasonable belief of entitlement to do so, including family members like Jorge. Def. Mot. at 8. In their cross-motion for summary judgment, the Athridges argue that "named insureds and resident family members" are a distinct and mutually exclusive group from "any person" referred to in Exclusion No. 11. Pls. CrossMot. at 4. In other words, plaintiffs assert that Exclusion No. 11 applies only to persons other than the named insureds and resident family members.

Since jurisdiction in this case is based on diversity of citizenship, this issue must be decided in accordance with the District of Columbia law. Keefe Co. v. Americable Intern., Inc., 219 F.3d 669, 670 (D.C.Cir.2000); Bennett Enterprises, Inc. v. Domino's Pizza, Inc. 45 F.3d 493, 497 (D.C.Cir.1995); Tidler v. Eli Lilly & Co., 851 F.2d 418, 424 (D.C.Cir.1988). As the court of appeals stated in the latter case:

Plaintiffs nonetheless ask this court "to construct [a] market share approach" for DES daughter cases out of whole cloth, using for a pattern only bits and pieces of the decisions of courts in remote states. Judicial pioneers must no doubt make bold forays into terra incognita in order to chart the way to justice, but that is not the office of a federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction. Ours is the more modest challenge, faithfully to apply the law of the state that the courts of the jurisdiction in which we sit, the District of Columbia, would apply had the case been filed with them. Erie R.R. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64, 58 S.Ct. 817, 82 L.Ed. 1188 (1938); Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Electric Manufacturing Co., 313 U.S. 487, 61 S.Ct. 1020, 85 L.Ed. 1477 (1941). As the Supreme Court has made clear, "A federal court in a diversity case is not free to engraft onto those state rules exceptions or modifications which may commend themselves to the federal court, but which have not commended themselves to the State in which the federal court sits." Day and Zimmermann, Inc. v. Challoner, 423 U.S. 3, 4, 96 S.Ct. 167, 168, 46 L.Ed.2d 3 (1975); see also Steorts v. American Airlines, Inc., 647 F.2d 194, 197 n. 32 (D.C.Cir.1981). Thus, we take the law of the appropriate jurisdiction as we find it; and we leave it undisturbed. See Cantwell v. University of Massachusetts, 551 F.2d 879, 880 (1st Cir.1977). As the First Circuit aptly expressed this fundamental rule of federal diversity jurisdiction:

Absent some authoritative signal from the legislature or the [state courts], we see no basis for even considering the pros and cons of innovative theories. ... We must apply the law of the forum as we infer it presently to be, not as it might come to be.... [W]e see no basis for applying any rule other than the traditional one. Dayton v. Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co., 739 F.2d 690, 694-95 (1st Cir.1984) (footnotes omitted); see also Answering Service, Inc. v. Egan, 728 F.2d 1500, 1504 & n. * (D.C.Cir.1984).

851 F.2d at 423-424.

Thus, as I have taken pains to point out in this case, and particularly in my March 2, 2001 opinion, when there is no case directly on point in the precedents

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of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the federal court is obliged to determine what result that court would reach given its existing precedents. The parties in this case, and the Athridges in particular, fail to comprehend that the absence of controlling precedent in the decisions of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals is not a license to find a case somewhere in the country that supports one's position and to demand its acceptance. As I also pointed out in my March 2, 2001 opinion, to do so would be to arrogantly resurrect the very "federal common law" that the Supreme Court put to rest in Erie. The sole emphasis has to be on what the District of Columbia Court of Appeals has done or would do.

There is another guiding principle, however, unique to the District of Columbia: in the absence of controlling precedent, courts interpreting the law of the District of Columbia look to the law of Maryland.7

Turning now to the exclusion at issue, whether one derives the holding from existing District of Columbia precedents or looks directly to Maryland law, the result is the same: the exclusion of a person who does not have a reasonable belief that he had permission to drive the car applies to a family member just as it does to anyone else.

First, as to existing District of Columbia precedents, the rules pertaining to the construction of insurance contracts are traditional:

"[W]here [insurance] contract language is not ambiguous, summary judgment is appropriate because `a written contract duly signed and executed speaks for itself and binds the parties without the necessity of extrinsic evidence.'" Byrd v.

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Allstate Ins. Co., 622 A.2d 691, 693 (D.C. 1993) (quoting Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 815 (D.C.1983)). An insurance contract is not "ambiguous merely because the parties do not agree on the interpretation of the contract...

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