Stillwell v. Topa Ins. Co., A21A1752

CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)
Decision Date09 March 2022
Docket NumberA21A1752



No. A21A1752

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

March 9, 2022


Dillard, Presiding Judge.

Following injuries sustained in an automobile collision with a dump truck driven by Curtis Jones and owned by Curtis Jones Trucking ("CJ Trucking"), Keondrae Stillwell brought a direct action against Topa Insurance Co., the alleged motor-carrier insurer of the truck at the time of the accident. In her complaint, Stillwell argued that-under Georgia's Motor Carrier Act (GMCA)[1]-Topa was responsible for any judgment she obtained against Jones and CJ Trucking. Stillwell now appeals the trial court's dismissal of her action against Topa, arguing the court erred in finding that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case and relying on erroneous factual findings. For the reasons set forth infra, we reverse.


The record shows that on August 18, 2018, Jones-who was driving a dump truck owned by CJ Trucking-collided head on with Stillwell's car, inflicting on her serious and permanent injuries. On February 9, 2018, Topa issued CJ Trucking a one-year commercial insurance policy for the dump truck. Stillwell's complaint alleged that when Topa evaluated Jones's application and issued the policy, it was aware CJ Trucking was operating as a motor carrier (despite the application indicating otherwise). She contended, inter alia, the policy or underwriting file contained a photograph of the dump truck-which displayed a Department of Transportation number-and that Topa knew CJ Trucking was registered as a motor carrier with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Even so, it is undisputed Topa never made any of the required regulatory filings for insurance companies under the GMCA because it accepted CJ Trucking's representation that it was not a motor carrier.

On August 20, 2020, Stillwell filed a complaint, asserting, inter alia, a negligence claim against Jones[2] and, under Georgia's direct-action statutes, [3] seeking damages directly from Topa. In doing so, Stillwell argued Topa is liable for any


judgment she ultimately obtains against Jones or CJ Trucking under the GMCA.[4]Topa answered the complaint, denying many of its allegations and asserting numerous affirmative defenses. And on the same day, Topa filed an OCGA § 9-11-12 (b) (1) motion to dismiss Stillwell's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Specifically, Topa claimed Stillwell did not have standing to file a direct action under OCGA §§ 40-1-112 and 40-2-140 because (1) Jones's policy was not a motor-carrier policy-and thus, it was not subject to liability under the GMCA; and (2) the relevant insurance policy was cancelled for non-payment on July 6, 2018 (approximately two months before the accident). Discovery ensued, and following a hearing on the matter, the trial court granted Topa's motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. This appeal by Stillwell follows.

A motion brought under OCGA § 9-11-12 (b) (1) "asserts the defense of lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter."[5] When a defendant challenges a plaintiff's standing by bringing a 12 (b) (1) motion, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing


that jurisdiction exists.[6] A motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction can "allege either a facial challenge, in which the court accepts as true the allegations on the face of the complaint" or "a factual challenge, which requires consideration of evidence beyond the face of the complaint."[7] And we review de novo a trial court's grant of a motion to dismiss due to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.[8] We also construe the pleadings "in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party with any doubts resolved in that party's favor."[9] With this standard of review and these guiding principles in mind, we turn to Stillwell's specific claims of error.

1. Stillwell first contends the trial court erred in granting Topa's motion for dismissal due to lack of subject-matter jurisdiction because it raised the nonjurisdictional question of whether she had a cause of action against Topa, not any issue of subject-matter jurisdiction. We agree.


Specifically, Stillwell maintains the proper inquiry is not whether the trial court has authority to adjudicate direct actions against insurance carriers under the GMCA, but rather whether Topa is a defendant within the category of persons or entities the direct-actions statutes authorize plaintiffs to join as defendants. Georgia's direct-action statutes create standing for injured plaintiffs to sue insurers of motor carriers directly.[10] And the trial court's analysis, according to Stillwell, was one of statutory interpretation-i.e., whether Topa is a motor-carrier insurer, thus authorizing her (the plaintiff) to sue the company under the GMCA. Topa, on the other hand, maintains


that because the direct-action statutes create standing to sue, they are necessarily jurisdictional. But this argument ignores decisions carefully distinguishing constitutional standing-which is jurisdictional[11]-from questions about the scope of a statutory cause of action-which are not jurisdictional.[12]


In Georgia, constitutional standing-more precisely, "Article VI standing"-is a threshold jurisdictional issue to enforce traditional limits placed on a court's "judicial power, "[13] as well as a question of subject-matter jurisdiction.[14] The


requirement that jurisdiction "be established as a threshold matter 'spring[s] from the nature and limits of the judicial power' . . . and is 'inflexible and without exception.'"[15] As a result, we must consider whether a plaintiff has constitutional standing nostra sponte.

Georgia's constitutional-standing cases-which often rely upon the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States[16]-have established that the "irreducible


constitutional minimum" of standing consists of three elements.[17] To ensure a case is properly within the scope of a court's judicial power, plaintiffs must allege facts sufficient to show "(1) an injury in fact; (2) a causal connection between the injury and the causal conduct; and (3) the likelihood that the injury will be redressed with a favorable decision."[18] Here, Stillwell satisfies constitutional standing because (1)


her complaint alleges facts that, if true, show an actual injury due to defendant's negligence; and (2) the trial court can redress that injury by awarding her damages.[19]

Nevertheless, the trial court concluded it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case because there was no underlying motor-carrier insurance policy-i.e., Topa was not in the category of persons or entities the direct-action statutes authorized a cause of action against.[20] But the question of whether a plaintiff has a cause of action under a particular statute is an ordinary issue of statutory interpretation, not a jurisdictional question. Notably, the Supreme Court of the United States has explained that it is misguided to characterize that kind of question as concerning a


lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.[21] The scope of a statutory cause of action, then, is not an appropriate inquiry to consider on a OCGA § 9-11-12 (b) (1) motion to dismiss.[22] And given the trial court's clear subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the tort and contract issues alleged in the complaint, [23] the trial court erred in holding that it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over Stillwell's direct action against Topa under the GMCA.[24]


2. Given our holding in Division 1 supra, we need not address Stillwell's argument that the trial court's grant of Topa's motion to dismiss her complaint was based on erroneous factual findings.

For all these reasons, we reverse the trial court's grant of Topa's motion for dismissal under OCGA § 9-11-12 (b) (1).

Judgment reversed.

Mercier and Pinson, JJ., concur.




[1] See OCGA § 40-1-50 et seq.

[2] Stillwell also sued several corporate entities and other individuals, but none of them are involved in this appeal.

[3] See OCGA §§ 40-1-112 and 40-2-140.

[4] See OCGA § 40-1-112 (c) ("It shall be permissible under this part for any person having a cause of action arising under this part to join in the same action the motor carrier and the insurance carrier, whether arising in tort or contract.").

[5] Douglas Cty. v. Hamilton State Bank, 340 Ga.App. 801, 801 (798 S.E.2d 509) (2017) (punctuation omitted).

[6] See id.

[7] Id.; accord Bobick v. Community & Southern Bank, 321 Ga.App. 855, 860 n. 4 (3) (743 S.E.2d 518) (2013); Pinnacle Benning v. Clark Realty Capital, 314 Ga.App. 609, 618 n. 37 (2)(a) (724 S.E.2d 894) (2012).

[8] See Douglas Cty., 340 Ga.App. at 801-02; Bobick, 321 Ga.App. at 856.

[9] Douglas Cty., 340 Ga.App. at...

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