Tennant v. Smallwood

Decision Date05 April 2002
Docket NumberNo. 30036.,30036.
Citation568 S.E.2d 10,211 W.Va. 703
PartiesJeanne TENNANT, Individually and as Mother and Next Friend for Andrea Tennant and Addie Tennant, Both Infants, Plaintiff Below, Appellee, v. Russell A. SMALLWOOD, Jr., Defendant Below, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Appellant.
CourtWest Virginia Supreme Court
Dissenting Opinion of Justice McGraw August 2, 2002.

Jeffrey A. Holmstrand, Esq., Jennifer A. Keadle, Esq., McDermott & Bonenberger, PLLC, Wheeling, West Virginia, Attorneys for the Appellant.

Michael W. McGuane, Esq., McGuane & Haranzo, Wheeling, West Virginia, Attorney for the Appellee.

DAVIS, Chief Justice:

The appellant herein, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company [hereinafter referred to as "State Farm"], appeals from an order entered March 2, 2001, by the Circuit Court of Wetzel County. In that order, the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the appellee herein and plaintiff below, Jeanne Tennant, individually, and in her representative capacity as mother and next friend of her infant children, Andrea and Addie Tennant [hereinafter collectively referred to as "Ms. Tennant"]. The crux of the circuit court's ruling permitted Ms. Tennant to collect uninsured motorist (UM) benefits under her policy with State Farm despite the fact that she previously had recovered proceeds from the motor vehicle insurance policy insuring the defendant below, Russell A. Smallwood, Jr. [hereinafter referred to as "Mr. Smallwood"]. On appeal to this Court, State Farm complains that the circuit court erred by denying its motion for summary judgment, and by awarding such relief to Ms. Tennant, when Mr. Smallwood does not meet the statutory definition of an uninsured motorist so as to activate those coverage provisions in Ms. Tennant's State Farm policy. Upon a review of the parties' arguments, the record designated for appellate consideration, and the pertinent authorities, we reverse the decision of the Circuit Court of Wetzel County. Based upon her prior recovery from Mr. Smallwood's motor vehicle insurance, which insurance satisfied the financial responsibility laws of this State,1 we conclude that Mr. Smallwood was not an uninsured motorist. Accordingly, the uninsured motorist provisions of Ms. Tennant's State Farm policy are not applicable to this accident.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

On September 1, 1995, Ms. Tennant, her two daughters, and her mother-in-law2 were injured when the vehicle Ms. Tennant was driving collided with Mr. Smallwood's vehicle. The accident occurred when Mr. Smallwood failed to stop at a stop sign at the intersection of Meadland Road and U.S. Route 50 in Taylor County, West Virginia. At the time of the collision, Mr. Smallwood had a policy of motor vehicle insurance with State Auto Mutual Insurance Company [hereinafter referred to as "State Auto"], with liability coverage limits for bodily injury of $20,000 per person, $40,000 per occurrence, commensurate with the minimum financial responsibility limits enumerated in W. Va.Code § 17D-4-2 (1979) (Repl.Vol.2000).3 Ms. Tennant's policy of motor vehicle insurance was with State Farm, and such policy provided uninsured motorist (UM) coverage.4

Following the accident, Ms. Tennant filed suit in the Circuit Court of Wetzel County, on August 11, 1997, seeking recompense for her injuries from Mr. Smallwood. Thereafter, State Auto offered to pay its full per accident policy limits of $40,000 to compensate the occupants of Ms. Tennant's automobile for their injuries. Ms. Tennant notified her insurer, State Farm, of this settlement, and accepted the monies designated for her and her children upon receiving approval of the settlement and release from State Farm and the Circuit Court of Wetzel County.5 Despite this consideration, neither Ms. Tennant's nor her daughters' injuries were fully compensated by the State Auto settlement. Although Ms. Tennant filed a claim for UM benefits under her State Farm motor vehicle insurance policy, State Farm denied coverage.6 After communicating numerous such denials to Ms. Tennant, State Farm, on March 29, 2001, moved the Wetzel County Circuit Court to dismiss Ms. Tennant's lawsuit or, in the alternative, for summary judgment with a declaration by the court to the effect that UM coverage is not available to Ms. Tennant under the facts of this case. Ms. Tennant also filed a motion for summary judgment. By order entered March 2, 2001, the circuit court granted summary judgment in Ms. Tennant's favor, finding that she was entitled to collect UM benefits under her State Farm policy. In so ruling, the circuit court examined the pertinent provisions of Ms. Tennant's State Farm policy which explain the availability of UM coverage and define "uninsured motor vehicle":

The portion of the State Farm policy which addresses uninsured coverage states, in pertinent part, as follows:
"We will pay damages for bodily injury and property damage an insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle. The bodily injury or property damage must be caused by accident arising out of the operation[,] maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle."
....

Uninsured Motor Vehicle — means:

1. A motor vehicle, the ownership, maintenance or use of which is:
(a) not covered by cash or securities on file with the West Virginia State Treasurer;
(b) not insured or bonded for bodily injury and property damage liability at the time of the accident[;] or
(c) insured or bonded for bodily injury and property damage at the time of the accident; but
(1) these limits of liability are less than required by the West Virginia Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Law; or
(2) the insuring company:
(a) legally denies coverage;
(b) is insolvent; or
(c) has been placed in receivership; or
2. A "hit and run" motor vehicle whose owner or driver remains unknown and which strikes:
(a) the insured[,]
(b) the vehicle the insured is occupying, or
(c) other property of the insured and causes bodily injury to the insured or property damage.

The court then determined this definition of uninsured motor vehicle to be ambiguous as the parties dispute the term's meaning and application to Ms. Tennant's claim for such benefits. Interpreting the ambiguity in Ms. Tennant's favor, in accordance with Syllabus point 4 of National Mutual Insurance Co. v. McMahon & Sons, Inc., 177 W.Va. 734, 356 S.E.2d 488 (1987),7 the circuit court granted Ms. Tennant's motion for summary judgment and denied the motion of State Farm. From this decision of the circuit court, State Farm appeals to this Court.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In the instant appeal, the primary issues of contention are whether Ms. Tennant and her daughters are entitled to recover UM benefits under Ms. Tennant's policy of motor vehicle insurance with State Farm and whether the circuit court's grant of summary judgment to Ms. Tennant and her children, awarding them such benefits, was proper. The first issue, then, is whether coverage existed under the State Farm policy. We previously have observed, and so hold, that " `[d]etermination of the proper coverage of an insurance contract when the facts are not in dispute is a question of law.' " Mitchell v. Federal Kemper Ins. Co., 204 W.Va. 543, 544, 514 S.E.2d 393, 394 (1998) (quoting Pacific Indem. Co. v. Linn, 766 F.2d 754, 760 (3d Cir.1985) (citation omitted)). See also Payne v. Weston, 195 W.Va. 502, 506-07, 466 S.E.2d 161, 165-66 (1995) ("The interpretation of an insurance contract... is a legal determination which ... is reviewed de novo on appeal." (citation omitted)). When asked to resolve a question of law, this Court employs a de novo review: "[w]here the issue on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review." Syl. pt. 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W.Va. 138, 459 S.E.2d 415 (1995).

To resolve the next query regarding the propriety of summary judgment in the case sub judice, we look to the standard for granting such relief. Summary judgment is proper only when "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and ... the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." W. Va. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Thus, "[a] motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law." Syl. pt. 3, Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Federal Ins. Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963). Once a circuit court has decided a motion for summary judgment, we accord the circuit court's ruling thereon a plenary review: "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syl. pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).

With these standards of review to guide our decision of the case, we proceed to evaluate the merits of the parties' arguments.

III. DISCUSSION

On appeal to this Court, State Farm contends that the circuit court erred by finding UM coverage when Mr. Smallwood had not only procured insurance in the limits required by the financial responsibility laws of this State, see W. Va.Code § 17D-4-2, but, following the accident, State Auto also had paid these full policy limits to the injured parties, including Ms. Tennant and her two daughters. Ms. Tennant responds that the circuit court did not erroneously deny State Farm's summary judgment motion because the grammatical structure of the uninsured motor vehicle definition contained in the State Farm policy differed from the statutory definition of that term. This Court, then, is charged with resolving the issue of first impression presented by the instant appeal: is an insured entitled to recover UM benefits under his/her own policy of motor...

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