Sauvain v. Acceptance Indem. Ins. Co., WD76356

Decision Date22 April 2014
Docket NumberWD76356
PartiesERICKA J. SAUVAIN, AMY LEIGH SAUVAIN, by Next Friend, ERICKA J. SAUVAIN, and BONNIE S. HUGHES, Respondents, v. ACCEPTANCE INDEMNITY INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellant.
CourtMissouri Court of Appeals

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri

The Honorable Anthony Rex Gabbert, Judge

Before Division I: Cynthia L. Martin, Presiding Judge, and Mark D. Pfeiffer and Karen King Mitchell, Judges

Acceptance Indemnity Insurance Company ("Acceptance") appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri ("trial court"), after a bench trial, in favor of Ericka J. Sauvain, Amy Leigh Sauvain, and Bonnie S. Hughes (collectively, "Plaintiffs") and against Acceptance on Plaintiffs' equitable garnishment claim. In its sole point on appeal, Acceptance argues:

The trial court erred in entering judgment in favor of Plaintiffs and against [Acceptance] because its finding that the parties did not intend a transfer ofownership at the time of the collision was against the weight of the evidence and not supported by substantial evidence in that the evidence presented at trial supported a conclusion that the parties did in fact intend to transfer ownership of the [Vehicle] on March 24, 2005.

(Emphasis added.)1

We affirm.

Factual and Procedural History2

This is not the first appeal of this equitable garnishment action. We previously considered appeal of the trial court's ruling that granted summary judgment to Plaintiffs in Sauvain v. Acceptance Indemnity Insurance Co., 339 S.W.3d 555 (Mo. App. W.D. 2011) ("Sauvain I"). In Sauvain I, we concluded that the undisputed facts of this case were not sufficient for either party to be entitled to summary judgment; hence, we remanded the case for a trial. It is in this vein that we review the factual and procedural history of this case.

In a separate underlying lawsuit, Plaintiffs brought suit alleging that David Bowman, Jr.'s ("Bowman Jr.") negligence caused a head-on vehicular collision with a vehicle operated by John Sauvain, III ("Sauvain") in Barry County, Missouri, on April 30, 2005. Bowman Jr. was driving a 1998 Ford Contour ("the Vehicle") at the time of the collision, and Sauvain was driving a 1998 Ford Escort. Bonnie Hughes ("Hughes") was a passenger in Sauvain's car. Sauvain died from the injuries he sustained in the collision, and Hughes suffered serious physical injuries.

Prior to the collision, David H. Bowman, Sr. ("Bowman Sr.") took his son, Bowman Jr., to a used car dealer for the purpose of looking for a car that Bowman Sr. wanted to purchase for Bowman Jr. as a wedding present. The Bowmans went together to USA Cars, Inc. ("USA Cars"), located in Wylie, Texas, which was near where the Bowmans were living at that time.

Eventually, on March 24, 2005, Bowman Sr. signed a document provided by USA Cars to purchase the Vehicle from USA Cars for $4,257. No representative for USA Cars signed the purchase agreement, and the agreement expressly stated that the signature of both parties was required before there would be a binding contract between the parties. Notwithstanding this fact, Bowman Sr. paid the sales price in full, was given a receipt and the car keys by USA Cars, and Bowman Sr. drove the Vehicle off the lot on that day. However, no title was provided by USA Cars to Bowman Sr. at that time, nor by the time of the fatal collision, which occurred some five weeks later (even though USA Cars had promised that title would be provided within one week). Bowman Sr. did not consider the sale of the Vehicle complete until title was provided by USA Cars and expected a full refund if USA Cars was unable to provide clean title to the Vehicle. During this period of "title limbo," Bowman Sr. contacted USA Cars both to question the whereabouts of title to the Vehicle and also to seek the permission of USA Cars to drive the Vehicle on USA Cars' temporary tags into the state of Missouri. In response, instead of indicating to Bowman Sr. that he, not USA Cars, owned the Vehicle, a representative of USA Cars stated that it was "still working on the title, but it shouldn't be a problem if you go out of state. You're covered." The fatal car wreck involving the Vehicle ensued on April 30, 2005.

The accident report prepared by the Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper in connection with the April 30 fatal car wreck listed the owner of the Vehicle as USA Cars. USA Cars did notrelease its lien on the Vehicle until May 23, 2005, and did not provide the title to the Vehicle to Bowman Sr. until June 3 or 4, 2005, well after the April car wreck.

Acceptance issued USA Cars a "garage" insurance policy ("USA Policy" or "the Policy") that insured USA Cars from March 16, 2005, to March 16, 2006. Pursuant to the Policy's terms, Acceptance agreed to insure USA Cars from loss on certain "autos" that were "owned" by USA Cars. For the purposes of this case, the Vehicle was one such "auto," to the extent it was "owned" by USA Cars as of the date of the April car wreck.

In the separate underlying bench trial against Bowman Jr. in Clay County Circuit Court, the circuit court found Bowman Jr. liable and entered a judgment against him and in favor of Plaintiffs. Specifically, Sauvain's heirs were awarded $2,000,000, and Hughes was awarded $4,000,000. Prior to the trial in the underlying lawsuit, Plaintiffs entered into a settlement agreement pursuant to section 537.065, RSMo, with Bowman Jr., and in addition, Bowman Jr.'s personal auto liability insurer, USAA, agreed to pay its policy limits of $50,000 on behalf of Bowman Jr.

Plaintiffs brought the subject equitable garnishment action in the Clay County Circuit Court against Acceptance for the purpose of garnishing insurance proceeds they claimed were to be provided under the terms of the USA Policy. The gravamen of the lawsuit was that this was an additional insurance policy that covered the Vehicle (and hence provided liability coverage up to the policy limits of $100,000 to the Vehicle's permissive driver) at the time of the wreck.

Plaintiffs alleged that the USA Policy covered the Vehicle because the automobile "was titled to and owned by USA Cars" on the date of the accident. Plaintiffs sought to have the insurance proceeds provided for in the Policy applied to the partial satisfaction of the underlying$6,000,000 judgment against Bowman Jr., the permissive driver of the Vehicle at the time of the wreck.

After the current action was filed, Plaintiffs and Acceptance filed opposing summary judgment motions as to the Policy coverage on the day of the accident. The trial court issued a judgment that granted Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment and denied Acceptance's motion for summary judgment. Acceptance appealed both rulings to this court.

In Sauvain I, we concluded that the trial court erred in granting Plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment because the trial court erroneously focused on whether the purchase agreement was fully executed, and not on the relevant test under Texas law—whether the uncontroverted facts indicated that the parties intended to effect the transfer of ownership at the time Bowman Sr. took possession of the Vehicle prior to the April car wreck. We also concluded that the trial court did not err in denying Acceptance's motion for summary judgment because there were disputed issues as to the parties' intent to effect the sale of the Vehicle prior to the April car wreck. Of relevance to the action that was ultimately taken by the fact-finder in this case upon remand, we said in Sauvain I:

Here, it was uncontroverted that Bowman, Sr. paid USA Cars the full sales price of $4,257 for the [Vehicle]. Furthermore, it was uncontroverted that USA Cars delivered the vehicle to Bowman, Sr. and that he took possession and control of the vehicle. However, it was also uncontroverted on summary judgment that pursuant to the express terms of the purchase contract used by USA Cars, in order to have a binding contract, the contract had to be signed by both parties and that the purchase agreement in this case was not in fact signed by USA Cars.3 It is also an uncontroverted fact that Bowman, Sr. called USA Cars to ask permission for Bowman, Jr. to leave the state in the car. Taken together, these facts create a disputed factual issue as to the intent of the parties to effect the sale under [Texas law].

Sauvain I, 339 S.W.3d at 567-68.

We concluded:

Ultimately, it is for the fact-finder, and not the trial court [on summary judgment motion], to determine whether Bowman Sr. and USA Cars intended "to effect the sale" based on the facts in this case.

Id. at 569 (emphasis added).

Upon remand, the parties appeared before the trial court on December 6, 2012. The parties waived their right to trial by jury and presented the case to the trial court for trial on the merits. After the introduction of evidence and the arguments of counsel, the case was submitted to the trial court for decision.

On January 21, 2013, the trial court entered its judgment, concluding that the collision, which was the subject of the underlying action, was covered by USA Cars' Policy with Acceptance and that Bowman Jr. was an insured under the Policy. The trial court held "that the weight of the evidence in this matter supports the conclusion that the parties did not intend a transfer of ownership at the time of the collision. . . . Because the weight of the evidence supports Plaintiffs' claim for equitable garnishment, this Court holds that Plaintiffs are entitled to judgment against Defendant Acceptance . . . on their claim for equitable garnishment" in the amount of the policy limits of $100,000.4

Acceptance appeals the trial court's judgment.

Standard of Review

On appeal of a bench-tried case, the trial court's judgment will be affirmed unless there is no substantial evidence to support it, it is against the weight of the evidence, or it erroneously declares or applies the law. Pearson v. Koster, 367 S.W.3d 36, 43 ...

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