Belton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., No. 3598.

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtCURETON, J.
Citation577 S.E.2d 487,353 S.C. 363
PartiesStewart BELTON, Appellant, v. CINCINNATI INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent.
Docket NumberNo. 3598.
Decision Date03 February 2003

353 S.C. 363
577 S.E.2d 487

Stewart BELTON, Appellant,
v.
CINCINNATI INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent

No. 3598.

Court of Appeals of South Carolina.

Heard November 5, 2002.

Decided February 3, 2003.

Rehearing Denied March 21, 2003.


353 S.C. 365
Frank Anthony Barton and Wayne Floyd, both of West Columbia, for Appellant

Russell D. Ghent and Mark Trapp, both of Greenville; and S. Jahue Moore, of West Columbia, for Respondent.

CURETON, J.

Stewart Belton filed this action alleging breach of contract and bad faith refusal to pay insurance proceeds. Cincinnati Insurance Company (Cincinnati) moved for summary judgment. The circuit court granted Cincinnati's motion. Belton appeals. We reverse and remand.

FACTS

Stuart Belton and Grady Query signed an agreement captioned "Lease Option to Buy" dated October 5, 1997. The agreement was a simple handwritten contract specifying a purchase price of $280,000 with a $50 down payment. The contract further provided for a note for $280,000 at 8% interest and lease payments of $1200 per month with eighty percent of each payment to be applied to the purchase price. The note was never executed.

The contract further provided the purchase was to be completed by November 1, 2002 with payment of the balance due at that time. The contract allowed Belton to improve the property before the closing only with Query's approval.

Belton fell behind almost immediately on his lease payments. On January 16, 1998, Belton wrote Query claiming the November 1997 payment was "moved up to December due to a miscommunication." Belton also claimed he was repairing the roof in lieu of rental payments for January and February. Query wrote Belton a letter on January 23, 1998, stating he was terminating the agreement and advising him to immediately vacate the premises. Belton did not vacate, and Query wrote another letter on February 18, 1998, again advising Belton he was terminating the agreement and advising Belton to vacate the premises.

Belton did not vacate, and Query filed a rule to vacate or show cause dated February 25, 1998. Query alleged Belton

353 S.C. 366
had not paid December, January, or February lease payments. Belton also failed to make payments in March and April of 1998. By petition dated April 24, 1998, Belton filed for bankruptcy and received protection from eviction due to the resulting automatic stay

On July 24, 1998, Query filed a motion in the bankruptcy court seeking to lift the stay. Belton, as advised by his bankruptcy attorney, sought to obtain property insurance on the building. On August 5, 1998, the Livingston Agency issued a binder from Cincinnati. On August 14, 1998, an intentional fire destroyed the building. The bankruptcy court granted Query's motion to lift the automatic stay on August 21, 1998.

Belton filed a claim with Cincinnati for insurance proceeds on the building. Cincinnati refused to pay the claim based upon the absence of a binding insurance contract and fraud. Belton sued Cincinnati asserting breach of contract and bad faith refusal to tender insurance proceeds. Cincinnati moved for summary judgment on September 8, 2000. A hearing on the motion was held on October 23, 2000. The trial court granted Cincinnati's motion for summary judgment on all of Belton's causes of action, ruling that Belton's insurance contract was invalid at the time of its making and at the time of the fire because Belton did not have an insurable interest in the building at either time.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to summary judgment as a matter of law. Conner v. City of Forest Acres, 348 S.C. 454, 462, 560 S.E.2d 606, 610 (2002). When determining whether triable issues of fact exist, all evidence and inferences drawn from the evidence are viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Osborne v. Adams, 346 S.C. 4, 7, 550 S.E.2d 319, 321 (2001).

LAW/ANALYSIS

Belton contends the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment on his breach of contract and bad faith refusal to pay insurance proceeds causes of action. We agree.

353 S.C. 367
In order to have an insurable interest in property under contract for purchase, there must be a valid contract in existence both at the time the policy was issued and became effective, and at the time of the loss. South Carolina Ins. Co. v. White, 301 S.C. 133, 138, 390 S.E.2d 471, 475 (Ct.App.1990); Powell v. Ins. Co. of North America, 285 S.C. 588, 590, 330 S.E.2d 550, 552 (Ct.App.1985). When a contract to purchase property terminates, the purchaser's insurable interest is extinguished. White, 301 S.C. at 138, 390 S.E.2d at 471. Where an insurable interest does not exist at the time the contract for insurance was made, the insurance contract is void from its inception. Abraham v. New York Underwriters Ins. Co., 187 S.C. 70, 78,196 S.E. 531, 534 (1938)

The trial court concluded the entire contract terminated upon Query's attempted cancellation of the contract by letters dated January 23 and February 18, 1998. The contract did not provide terms for ejectment. Accordingly, the statutory grounds for ejectment of a tenant under a lease would apply. Section 27-37-10 of the South Carolina Code provides: "(A) The tenant may be ejected upon application of the landlord or his agent when (1) the tenant fails or refuses to pay the rent when due or when demanded, (2) the term of tenancy or occupancy has ended, or (3) the terms or conditions of the lease have been violated." S.C.Code Ann. § 27-37-10 (Supp. 2001). "[T]he Legislature enacted section 27-37-10 to give the lessor a right not recognized at common law, the right to terminate a lease in the absence of a contractual provision." Kiriakides v. United Artists Communications, Inc., 312 S.C. 271, 275-76, 440 S.E.2d 364, 366 (1994). Therefore, even without specific terms for ejectment in the parties' contract, the application of section 27-37-10 may have been sufficient to evict Belton and terminate the lease portion of the contract.

However, the termination of the lease would not ipso facto terminate Belton's option to purchase the property. The determination of whether terms in a contract are severable depends on the intent of the parties, which requires a factual determination. Williams v. Riedman, 339 S.C. 251, 277, 529 S.E.2d 28, 41 (Ct.App.2000). Belton testified in deposition he recognized the contract was a lease with an option to purchase but believed the right to purchase the property existed even at the time of the hearing. Query acknowledged he remained

353 S.C. 368
willing to honor Belton's option to purchase the property. We find a factual issue exists as to whether Belton's right to purchase the property under the option was severable from his rights as a lessee. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's finding that the entire contract terminated due to Belton's failure to make lease payments.

The trial court further found, however, that even if the option was severed from the lease, Belton had no insurable interest as he held a mere expectancy to purchase property that did not qualify as an insurable interest.

In Benton & Rhodes, Inc. v. Boden, this court defined an insurable interest:

It may be said, generally, that any one has an insurable interest in property who derives a benefit from its existence or would suffer loss from its destruction. An insurable interest in property is any right, benefit or advantage arising out of or dependent thereon, or any liability in respect thereof, or any relation to or concern therein of such a nature that it might be so affected by the contemplated peril as to directly damnify the insured.
* * *
The term `interest,' as used in the phrase `insurable interest,' is not limited to
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1 practice notes
  • Belton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., No. 25862.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • August 30, 2004
    ...holding Belton did not have an insurable interest in the destroyed property. The court of appeals reversed. Belton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 353 S.C. 363, 577 S.E.2d 487 (Ct.App.2003). We FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND In October 1997, Belton and Charleston attorney Grady Query (Query) entered......
1 cases
  • Belton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., No. 25862.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of South Carolina
    • August 30, 2004
    ...holding Belton did not have an insurable interest in the destroyed property. The court of appeals reversed. Belton v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 353 S.C. 363, 577 S.E.2d 487 (Ct.App.2003). We FACTUAL/PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND In October 1997, Belton and Charleston attorney Grady Query (Query) entered......

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