Mau v. North Dakota Ins. Reserve Fund

Decision Date21 December 2001
Docket NumberNo. 00-1369-CQ.,00-1369-CQ.
Citation2001 WI 134,637 N.W.2d 45,248 Wis.2d 1031
PartiesWolfgang MAU and Ena Mau, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. NORTH DAKOTA INSURANCE RESERVE FUND, a corporation, Defendant, NATIONAL UNION FIRE INSURANCE COMPANY OF PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA, a corporation, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the plaintiffs-appellants there were briefs by Duane A. Lillehaug and Lee Hagen Law Office, Ltd., Fargo, North Dakota, and Dana J. Weis and Habush, Habush, Davis & Rottier, Rhinelander, and oral argument by Dana J. Weis.

For the defendant-appellee there was a brief by William P. Harrie and Nilles, Hansen & Davies, Ltd., Fargo, North Dakota, and Frank L. Steeves, Patrick L. Wells and Crivello, Carlson, Mentkowski & Steeves, S.C., Milwaukee, and oral argument by Patrick L. Wells.

¶ 1. N. PATRICK CROOKS, J

This case is before the court on certification from the Supreme Court of North Dakota pursuant to Wis. Stat. § 821.01 (1995-96).1 The parties dispute whether Wolfgang Mau is covered under an underinsured motorist policy. The specific question before the court is: Is Endorsement #1 in the International Extended Protection (IEP) Option valid under Wisconsin law to preclude underinsured motorist coverage to one who rents a car from Alamo, purchases the IEP Option, and is injured while sitting in a different car? Based on our interpretation of language in the excess policy, we find that Mau is a named insured under the excess policy and that the occupancy requirement in Endorsement #1 is not valid under Wis. Stat. § 632.32.

I

¶ 2. The facts in this case are not in dispute. Wolfgang Mau and Dieter Jung (Jung), residents of Germany, arranged with a German travel agent to rent a car from Alamo Rent-A-Car, Inc. (Alamo) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for three weeks. Wolfgang Mau and Jung arrived in Milwaukee on April 4, 1997, and rented the car from Alamo. The rental voucher specifically names "Mr. Mau/Wolfgang" as "Renter" and Wolfgang Mau signed the rental documents on the line indicated "Renters' Signature." After renting the car from Alamo, Wolfgang Mau and Jung began traveling west across the United States.

¶ 3. On April 5, 1997, due to slippery road conditions, Wolfgang Mau lost control of the rental car on I-94 near Casselton, North Dakota. The rental car slid off the road and came to rest with its front wheels over the shoulder.

¶ 4. A Cass County deputy sheriff arrived at the scene and parked his squad car on the shoulder of the road, about thirty feet from the rental car. The deputy asked Wolfgang Mau and Jung to get into his patrol vehicle as he was helping them make arrangements to get the rental car pulled out. Jung sat in the front seat of the patrol car and Wolfgang Mau sat in the rear seat of the patrol car.

¶ 5. Shortly thereafter, Bette Mashburn (Mashburn) was heading east on I-94 and lost control of her vehicle. Mashburn's vehicle struck the patrol car, pinning Mau up against the security barrier between the front and rear seats of the patrol car. Wolfgang Mau suffered serious injuries.

¶ 6. Wolfgang Mau and his wife, Ena Mau, (hereafter collectively referred to as "Mau") settled the liability claim against Mashburn for her insurance policy limit of $100,000. Mau then sued the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund ("NDIRF"), which insured the patrol car, and National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh (National Union), Alamo's insurer. The NDIRF coverage had underinsured motorist (UIM) policy limits of $1,000,000. Mau settled his claim against NDIRF for $715,000. The certified question in this case relates to Mau's continued claim for UIM coverage against National Union.

¶ 7. Information about Mau's insurance coverage was provided in the rental documents he received from Alamo, and in policies issued to Alamo by National Union. The Alamo rental voucher states:

THE FOLLOWING PRODUCTS, AS DESCRIBED IN THE RENTAL JACKET, ARE INCLUDED:
. . . .
EP WITH BODILY INJURY LIABILITY LIMIT AND UM LIMIT OF 1 MILLION

¶ 8. Under "TERMS FOR RENTING AN ALAMO CAR," the rental agreement provided:

Other Options: ... Extended Protection (EP), . . . and other such options are offered where permitted and are described and limited on the rental agreement jacket that I received from you and in any underlying policy.

The rental agreement jacket provided:

This is your Rental Agreement Jacket which contains important information about options you may purchase. The benefits are only as described in this Rental Agreement Jacket and in any underlying insurance policy covering the rental and are subject to the express terms and conditions of your Rental Agreement. Alamo offers no "full coverage" option.
. . .

LIABILITY INSURANCE SUPPLEMENT (LIS)

If LIS is purchased, you and authorized drivers are provided up to an aggregate single limit of $500,000 for claims that may be made by others against you or authorized drivers for bodily injury or death and/or property damage arising out of the use or operation of our rental car. . . .

UNINSURED MOTORIST (UM)

UM provides benefits to you and any family members up to an aggregate single limit of $100,000. These benefits are provided to you or any family member who, while physically occupying the Alamo rental car when it is being driven by you or an authorized driver, suffers bodily injury or death by a negligent motorist, a negligent underinsured motorist or a negligent hit and run driver.

EXTENDED PROTECTION (EP)

If purchased, EP provides . . . UM protection as described above. EP does not include any additional UM coverage above $100,000, except to the extent, if any, required by state law, and you and Alamo reject such additional UM coverage to the extent permitted by law.
The purchase of EP, LIS, and UM is entirely optional; no purchase is required in order to rent our car. The purchase is not an application for insurance. Alamo's policy is issued by National Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, PA ("National Union").

(Emphasis in original.)

¶ 9. Mau was covered under two policies in relation to the Alamo rental car: RMCA 1432406, the "Commercial Auto" policy ("the underlying policy"); and RMCA 1432440, an "Excess Auto Liability (IEP)" policy ("the excess policy"). Coverage under the excess policy was available to Mau because he purchased the International Extended Protection (IEP) Option.

¶ 10. The declarations page of the excess auto policy provides: "[T]his policy shall follow all the terms and conditions of Policy Number RMCA 1432440 . . . . NAMED INSURED: SEE ENDORSEMENT #1." Endorsement #1 states:

It is agreed Section II — LIABILITY COVERAGE, A. COVERAGE, 1. WHO IS AN INSURED of the Business Auto Coverage Form is amended to read:
1. Who Is An Insured
a. Only while occupying the Alamo rental vehicle, any rentee/lesee [sic] who purchases the International Extended Protection (IEP) Option, but only while the Alamo vehicle is being driven by the rentee/lessee or an "Alamo Authorized Additional Driver" and all terms and conditions of the Rental Agreement have been met.
. . .

¶ 11. Mau's claim against National Union is based on the underinsured motorist coverage provided by the excess policy. Mau had underinsured motorist coverage because, under the IEP Option, he was entitled to benefits for "bodily injury or death by . . . a negligent underinsured motorist."

II

[1]

¶ 12. The Supreme Court of North Dakota asks this court to decide whether specific provisions of the excess policy are valid under Wisconsin law. Our understanding of the Supreme Court of North Dakota's certified question is whether, under Wisconsin law, an underinsured motorist policy can define a named insured by requiring occupancy of a specific vehicle. It is unclear, however, whether the Supreme Court of North Dakota is asking this court to assume that Mau is a named insured under the excess policy,2 or if the Supreme Court of North Dakota is asking this court to interpret the contract and decide if Mau is a named insured. To answer the certified question, therefore, we find that we must first decide whether Mau is a named insured by interpreting specific provisions of the excess policy. The interpretation of language in an insurance policy presents a question of law that we review de novo.3 Smith v. Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co., 155 Wis. 2d 808, 810, 456 N.W.2d 597 (1990).

[2-6]

¶ 13. We apply the same rules of construction to the language in an insurance policy as to the language in any other contract. Taylor v. Greatway Ins. Co., 2001 WI 93, ¶ 10, 245 Wis. 2d 134, 628 N.W.2d 916; Kremers-Urban Co. v. Am. Employers Ins. Co., 119 Wis. 2d 722, 735, 351 N.W.2d 156 (1984). The objective in interpreting and construing a contract is to carry out the true intention of the parties. Kremers-Urban, 119 Wis. 2d at 735. The language of an insurance policy is ambiguous when it is "susceptible to more than one reasonable construction." Smith, 155 Wis. 2d at 811. Whether ambiguity exists in a contract is a question of law. Kremers-Urban, 119 Wis. 2d at 735. We construe ambiguities in coverage in favor of the insured and narrowly construe exclusions in coverage against the insurer. Smith, 155 Wis. 2d at 811. The test is not what the insurer intended the words to mean, but what a reasonable person in the position of the insured would have understood the words to mean. Dowhower v. W. Bend Mut. Ins. Co., 2001 WI 73, ¶ 35, 236 Wis. 2d 113, 613 N.W.2d 557. However, when the language of the policy is plain and unambiguous, we will enforce the policy as written and not engage in construction. Danbeck v. Am. Family Mut. Ins. Co., 2001 WI 91, ¶ 10, 245 Wis. 2d 186, 629 N.W.2d 150.

¶ 14. The declarations page of the excess policy states, "NAMED INSURED: SEE ENDORSEMENT #1." Endorsement #1 defines "Who Is An Insured" by listing three definitions.4 The first definition potentially includes Mau, and therefore, is the only definition at issue. [7]

¶ 15....

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