Republic Vanguard Insurance Co. v. Buehl

Decision Date16 February 1973
Docket NumberNo. 43467,43467
Citation295 Minn. 327,204 N.W.2d 426
PartiesREPUBLIC VANGUARD INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent, v. Leonard BUEHL, et al., Rspondents, Minnie Davis, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. A liability insurer's obligation to defend its named insured is contractual, to be determined by the allegations of the complaint against the insured and the indemnity coverage afforded by the policy.

2. The provisions of a homeowners insurance policy issued by plaintiff to named insureds, defendants Leonard and Betty Buehl, affording liability indemnity coverage for bodily-injury damages obligate plaintiff to defend a suit by defendant Minnie Davis for such damages against the named insureds where the complaint includes allegations that such damages were caused by parental negligence of the named insureds in failing to supervise and control their minor son's operation of a motorcycle, knowing his dangerous propensities, even if such allegations prove 'groundless, false or fraudulent.'

Todd, Zimmerman & Bix, Minneapolis, for appellant.

Jardine, Logan & O'Brien, and Alan R. Vanasek, St. Paul, for Rep. Vanguard Ins. Co.

William Koenig, Mound, for Leonard Buehl, and others.

Heard before KNUTSON, C.J., and ROGOSHESKE, TODD, and MacLAUGHLIN, JJ.


Defendant Minnie Davis appeals from a summary declaratory judgment determining that the provisions of a homeowners policy issued by plaintiff insurance company to defendants Leonard and Betty Buehl did not obligate the company to defend an action for personal-injury damages sustained by defendant Davis when she was struck by a motorcycle operated by the insureds' minor son. In so far as the complaint in the personal-injury action included allegations of parental negligence claimed to be covered by the policy, we reverse.

Defendant John Buehl, a 16-year-old son of Leonard and Betty Buehl, struck and injured defendant Davis, a pedestrian, with his motorcycle. She instituted a personal-injury damage action against both the parents and the son. In response to the request of the parents, the company declined to defend, claiming that under the exclusion clause 1 of the policy, coverage did not extend to accidents occurring away from the homeowner's permises. In furtherance of this position, this action for declaratory judgment was initiated. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiff insurance company, and defendant Davis appeals.

Defendant Davis concedes that pursuant to our holding in Lang v. General Ins. Co., 268 Minn. 36, 127 N.W.2d 541 (1964), the policy issued to Leonard and Betty Buehl affords no coverage for that part of the cause of action premised upon their alleged vicarious liability as owners of the motor vehicle for the negligence of their son. 2 However, she contends that she has alleged a separate and distinct cause of action based upon the parents' negligent failure to supervise and control a son they knew, or should have known, possessed dangerous propensities for operating a motorcycle. This cause of action was alleged in these words:

'Said defendants LEONARD and BETTY BUEHL had the ability to control their son JOHN BUEHL and knew of the necessity for exercising said control, and had the opportunity to do so.

'Defendants LEONARD and BETTY BUEHL failed to exercise reasonable care to control their son defendant JOHN BUEHL, in that they caused and permitted the purchase of the motorcycle which defendant JOHN BUEHL was operating on June 24, 1966, at the time of said collision; that said defendants LEONARD and BETTY BUEHL allowed defendant JOHN BUEHL to use said vehicle knowing his use of it was likely to result in injury to another as a natural and probable consequence.

'That defendants LEONARD and BETTY BUEHL were negligent in that they took no reasonable or timely steps to protect plaintiff from the negligence of defendant JOHN BUEHL or from his known propensity, namely, bad driving habits.'

Such a cause of action, although infrequently prosecuted, is not novel and sets forth a valid claim for relief predicated on the theory of common-law negligence. Although parents under the common law are generally not held liable in damages for the torts of their minor children solely because of that relationship, where the parents cause the tort to occur through their own negligence, they may be held liable for the damages. 3

In Clarine v. Addison, 182 Minn. 310, 234 N.W. 295 (1931), we recognized the availability of such a cause of action when a minor child was given a .22-caliber pistol by his father. 4 We there sustained the trial court's holding that the parent was not liable, but only because the record before this court failed to adequately establish the possession of any dangerous propensities on the part of the minor son. We therefore concluded (182 Minn. 311, 234 N.W. 296):

'The record does not show whether Addison, Jr. was experienced or inexperienced, careful or careless, with firearms. There is nothing to indicate that the son, come almost to man's estate, was an unsafe donee of the target weapon in question.'

Other leading jurisdictions have also recognized the availability of this cause of action. In McDonald v. Home Ins. Co., 97 N.J.Super. 501, 235 A.2d 480 (1967), Walter Dorman, Sr., named Robert and Sarah McDonald as defendants responsible for the death of his son, Walter Dorman, Jr., allegedly caused by the negligent driving of defendants' infant son, Mickey McDonald. Home Insurance Company declined liability coverage based upon an exclusion provision identical to that included within the homeowners policy issued to Leonard and Betty Buehl. The McDonalds settled the action brought against them and commenced an action to recover the costs arising out of that settlement. Summary judgment was granted by the trial court in favor of Home. We agree with the appellate court's reversal of the summary judgment and note with approval its discussion concerning the nature of the alleged cause of action (97 N.J.Super. 503, 235 A.2d 482):

'We hold that Home was obliged to defend the McDonalds against the Dorman action. The Action against the McDonalds was not based upon 'the ownership, maintenance, operation, use, loading or unloading of * * * automobiles * * *' even though the immediate cause of the Injury and death of Dorman, Jr. was Mickey's operation of the automobile. The action was based upon their alleged negligence in failing to supervise and control their child, knowing of his violent and dangerous habits.' (Italics supplied in part.) 5

Since the elements of such a cause of action involve a breach of duty by parents to exercise reasonable supervision and control over their minor child so as to prevent...

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