Sigmund v. Progressive Northern Ins. Co., CIV.A.05-0404(ESH).

CourtUnited States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
Writing for the CourtHuvelle
Citation374 F.Supp.2d 33
PartiesDonald Wright SIGMUND, Plaintiff, v. PROGRESSIVE NORTHERN INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.
Docket NumberNo. CIV.A.05-0404(ESH).,CIV.A.05-0404(ESH).
Decision Date31 May 2005
374 F.Supp.2d 33
Donald Wright SIGMUND, Plaintiff,
No. CIV.A.05-0404(ESH).
United States District Court, District of Columbia.
May 31, 2005.

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Patrick M. Regan, Jonathan E. Halperin, Regan Halperin & Long, PLLC, Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

Brett Anthony Buckwalter, Paul M. Finamore, Niles, Barton & Wilmer, Baltimore, MD, for Defendant.


HUVELLE, District Judge.

This case presents the novel question of whether a person can recover under the uninsured motorist (UM) provision of the insurance policy on his father's vehicle for injuries he sustained as a result of the explosion of bombs placed in that same vehicle by his half-brother. Defendant claims that plaintiff's suit fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because plaintiff is not entitled to uninsured motorist benefits pursuant to the terms of the insurance contract. For the reasons stated below, the Court agrees with defendant's arguments and dismisses plaintiff's complaint.


On July 12, 2002, plaintiff was given permission to operate a vehicle owned by his father, Donald W. Sigmund. (Compl.¶¶ 7, 9.) After plaintiff entered the driver's door and attempted to operate the vehicle, it exploded as a result of two bombs placed in the vehicle by plaintiff's half-brother, Prescott Sigmund. (Compl.¶¶ 9, 11.) As a result of the bombing of the vehicle, plaintiff sustained severe and permanent injuries. (Compl.¶¶ 13-14.) At all times relevant to this case, the vehicle was insured by defendant for both liability and UM purposes. (Compl.¶ 10.) Prescott Sigmund pled guilty to the bombing and does not have any type of insurance that would cover plaintiff's injuries. (Compl.¶ 18). Plaintiff presented a claim to defendant for UM insurance coverage for the injuries sustained in the bombing, but defendant refused to pay. (Compl.¶¶ 19-20.) Plaintiff brings this suit complaining of defendant's breach of the UM provisions of the insurance contract with his father. (Compl.¶¶ 15-20.)

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In the District of Columbia automobile insurance benefits are governed by statute, which sets certain requirements for all insurance contracts in D.C., see D.C. CODE ANN. §§ 31-2401 et seq., and by the terms of the insurance contract between the insurer and insured.

As the parties appear to agree, this case must be resolved under District of Columbia law. See Keefe Co. v. Americable Int'l, Inc., 219 F.3d 669, 669-70 (D.C.Cir.2000). A federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction, however, is not to "make bold forays into terra incognita in order to chart the way to justice, but ... faithfully to apply the law of the state that the courts of the jurisdiction in which we sit, the District of Columbia, would apply...." Tidler v. Eli Lilly & Co., 851 F.2d 418, 424 (D.C.Cir.1988); see also Dayton v. Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co., 739 F.2d 690, 694-95 (1st Cir.1984) ("[W]e 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."). If there is no D.C. law on point, "the District of Columbia courts should look to the law of Maryland for guidance...."1 Conesco Indus., Ltd. v. Conforti & Eisele, Inc., 627 F.2d 312, 316 (D.C.Cir.1980); see Athridge v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 163 F.Supp.2d 38, 45 (D.D.C.2001).

I. Legal Standard

Defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or, alternatively, for summary judgment. The allegations in plaintiff's complaint are presumed true and all reasonable factual inferences should be construed in plaintiff's favor. Maljack Prods., Inc. v. Motion Picture Ass'n of Am., Inc., 52 F.3d 373, 375 (D.C.Cir.1995); Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C.Cir.1979). In this case, the facts are undisputed and the only issue is one of contract interpretation. "[W]here [insurance] contract language is not ambiguous, summary judgment is appropriate...." Byrd v. Allstate Ins. Co., 622 A.2d 691, 693 (D.C.1993). An insurance contract is not "ambiguous merely because the parties do not agree on the interpretation of the contract provision in question." Id. at 694 (citation omitted). The question of whether an insurance contract is ambiguous is a one of law, reviewed de novo by the court. See Sacks v. Rothberg, 569 A.2d 150, 154 (D.C.1990).

II. Uninsured Motorist (UM) Benefits

The principles governing the construction of an insurance contract can be succinctly stated. "An insurance policy is a contract between the insured and the insurer, and in construing it we must first look to the language of the contract." Cameron v. USAA Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 733 A.2d 965, 968 (D.C.1999). "[W]here insurance contract language is not ambiguous, ... `a written contract duly signed and executed speaks for itself and binds the parties without the necessity of extrinsic evidence.'" Byrd, 622 A.2d at 693 (quoting Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 815 (D.C.1983)). If the language is ambiguous, any "doubt should be resolved in favor of the insured" in a manner consistent with the reasonable expectations of the purchaser of the policy. Cameron, 733 A.2d at 968. The "first step in the construction

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of contracts is to determine `what a reasonable person in the position of the parties would have thought the disputed language meant.'" Id. at 970 (quoting District of Columbia v. C.J. Langenfelder & Son, Inc., 558 A.2d 1155, 1159 (D.C.1989)); see also Travelers Indem. Co. of Ill. v. United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, 770 A.2d 978, 985-86 (D.C.2001). Words must be given their "common, ordinary and ... `popular' meaning" and the "clear meaning will be adopted whether favorable to the insured or not." Quadrangle Dev. Corp. v. Hartford Ins. Co., 645 A.2d 1074, 1075 (D.C.1994) (quoting Unkelsbee v. Homestead Fire Ins. Co. of Baltimore, 41 A.2d 168, 170 (D.C.1945); Medical Serv. of D.C. v. Llewellyn, 208 A.2d 734, 736 (D.C.1965)).

The relevant provisions of the insurance contract issued to Donald W. Sigmund provide:

we will pay for damages ... which an insured person is legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle because of bodily injury or property damage:

1. sustained by an insured person;

2. caused by an accident;2 and

3. arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle.

(Def.'s Mem., Ex. 3 at 17.) As it is not disputed that the plaintiff was an insured person, and he sustained bodily injuries, the issues presented are: (1) whether the vehicle was uninsured; (2) whether the incident arose out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle; and (3) whether the plaintiff is legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle.

A. Uninsured Motor Vehicle

Plaintiff argues, citing cases from various states, that when a vehicle is used without permission for an impermissible purpose, an otherwise insured vehicle can be rendered uninsured for purposes of UM benefits.3 See, e.g., Comet Cas. Co. v.

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Jackson, 125 Ill.App.3d 921, 81 Ill.Dec. 569, 467 N.E.2d 269, 271 (1984) (insured's vehicle was uninsured as to him when stolen); Cox v. Russell, 367 N.J.Super. 121, 842 A.2d 243, 245-46 (2004) (vehicle used without permission became uninsured); Grabowski, 784 A.2d at 755-56 (insured's vehicle became uninsured after theft); Carmichael, 388 N.Y.S.2d at 355-56 (insured's vehicle became uninsured when operated by unknown person); see also Wanda Ellen Wakefield, Operation or Use of Vehicle Outside Scope of Permission as Rendering It Uninsured Within the Meaning of Uninsured Motorist Coverage, 17 A.L.R.4th 1322 (2004). Because the uninsured status of the vehicle depends upon its unauthorized use, were the Court to accept plaintiff's argument, the only activities relevant to the analysis of the other issues in this case are those of the assailant. Obviously the plaintiff here used or operated the vehicle in the course of the bombing, but the plaintiff was a permissive user, and hence the vehicle was not uninsured with respect to the plaintiff. But as to this first issue, the Court need not resolve it but will assume arguendo that the assailant's unauthorized activities are sufficient to render the vehicle uninsured for the purposes of UM benefits and will proceed to consider the remaining two issues.

B. Arising Out of the Ownership, Maintenance, or Use of an Uninsured Motor Vehicle

Under the terms of the insurance contract, in order to qualify for UM benefits, plaintiff's injuries must "aris[e] out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle." (Def.'s Mem., Ex. 3 at 17.) As there is no claim that the injuries arose from the ownership or maintenance of an uninsured vehicle, the Court's analysis will be limited to the meaning of "arising out of the ... use of an uninsured automobile." Plaintiff contends that assailant's activities in bombing the car constitute "use" of the vehicle and this use caused his injuries. Although plaintiff is correct that the contract does not explicitly define the term "use," the meaning of the term in this context is unambiguous, and in light of the case law interpreting the term "use," the Court concludes that assailant's activities do not qualify as "use" of the vehicle within the meaning of the contract.

Given the lack of D.C. law interpreting this phrase,4 the Court will look to Maryland law for guidance. In order for plaintiff's injuries to arise out of the use of an uninsured vehicle, the vehicle must be "directly connected, causally, to the injury." Harris v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 117 Md.App. 1, 699 A.2d 447, 454 (1997) (citing Frazier v. Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund Bd., 262 Md. 115, 277 A.2d 57, 59 (1971))....

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