Treichel v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.

Decision Date02 January 1997
Docket NumberNo. 96-028,96-028
Citation280 Mont. 443,54 St.Rep. 1,930 P.2d 661
PartiesCarolyn TREICHEL, Petitioner and Respondent, v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, an Illinois corporation registered to do business in Montana, and Ruth Hintz, Defendants and Appellants.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

William Conklin, Allen P. Lanning, Conklin, Nybo, LeVeque & Murphy, Great Falls, for Appellant.

Thomas J. Beers, Connell, Beers & Alterowitz, Missoula, for Respondent.

NELSON, Justice.

Petitioner Carolyn Treichel (Carolyn) brought this action against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm) seeking a ruling that Carolyn's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is not subject to the "Each Person" policy limit applicable to her husband's claim. The District Court for the Fourth Judicial District, Missoula County, granted Carolyn's Motion for Summary Judgment and entered judgment in her favor. State Farm appeals. We affirm.

The sole issue we address on appeal is whether the "Each Person" or the "Each Accident" limits of liability set out and contained in the State Farm policy apply to Carolyn's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Factual and Procedural Background

On August 9, 1992, Carolyn and her husband, Fredie, were riding their bicycles on Old Highway 200 about two miles east of East Missoula when Fredie was struck from behind by an automobile driven by Ruth Hintz (Hintz). Carolyn was riding some distance behind Fredie and was not injured. Carolyn saw Hintz's car strike Fredie and throw him into the air. She also saw the severe head wound Fredie received when his head hit the vehicle's windshield before he fell to the pavement. Fredie subsequently died from the injuries he sustained in the accident.

Hintz was insured by an automobile policy issued by State Farm that provided in part:

Limits of Liability:

The amounts of bodily injury liability coverage is [sic] shown on the declarations page under "Limits of Liability--coverage A--Bodily Injury, Each Person, Each Accident." Under "Each Person" is the amount of coverage for all damages due to bodily injury to one person. "Bodily injury to one person" includes all injury and damages to others resulting from this bodily injury. Under "Each Accident" is the total amount of coverage, subject to the amount shown under "Each Person," for all damages due to bodily injury to two or more persons in the same accident.

The policy limited bodily-injury liability coverage to $25,000 for each person and $50,000 for each accident. State Farm paid Fredie's estate $25,000.

On February 10, 1995, Carolyn brought this action against State Farm and Hintz claiming that she is entitled to an additional $25,000 under the policy for her emotional distress. In the Agreed Statement of Facts, filed April 25, 1995, the parties agreed that Carolyn met all of the elements necessary for a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress as set forth in the case of Versland v. Caron Transport (1983), 206 Mont. 313, 671 P.2d 583. The parties further agreed that the only issue to be determined by this action is "whether the 'each person' or 'each accident' limits of liability set out and contained in the policy ... applies to [Carolyn's] claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress."

Carolyn filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on May 23, 1995, contending that, as a matter of law, her claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress is an independent, non-derivative cause of action separate from Fredie's claim and thus covered under the "Each Accident" limits of liability contained in the policy. State Farm filed a Motion for Summary Judgment the following day.

After hearing oral argument, the District Court granted Carolyn's Motion for Summary Judgment, denied State Farm's Motion for Summary Judgment and entered judgment in Carolyn's favor. State Farm appeals the District Court's order and judgment.

Discussion

Whether the "Each Person" or the "Each Accident" limits of liability set out and contained in the State Farm policy apply to Carolyn's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

In its Opinion, Order and Declaratory Judgment, the District Court determined that Carolyn's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress arose "out of the traumatic personal impact upon her own emotional and physical well-being by actually and immediately experiencing the accident which killed her husband directly in front of her." The court concluded that Carolyn was a second injured party in the accident, thus it granted Carolyn's Motion for Summary Judgment and declared that under the policy, Carolyn was entitled to an additional $25,000 for emotional distress damages separate and apart from the $25,000 limitation on Fredie's claim.

Our standard of review in appeals from summary judgment rulings is de novo. Motarie v. N. Mont. Joint Refuse Disposal (1995), 274 Mont. 239, 242, 907 P.2d 154, 156 (citing Mead v. M.S.B., Inc. (1994), 264 Mont. 465, 470, 872 P.2d 782, 785). When we review a district court's grant of summary judgment, we apply the same evaluation as the district court based on Rule 56, M.R.Civ.P. Bruner v. Yellowstone County (1995), 272 Mont. 261, 264, 900 P.2d 901, 903. In Bruner, we set forth the following inquiry:

The movant must demonstrate that no genuine issues of material fact exist. Once this has been accomplished, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party to prove, by more than mere denial and speculation, that a genuine issue does exist. Having determined that genuine issues of fact do not exist, the court must then determine whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. We review the legal determinations made by a district court as to whether the court erred.

Bruner, 900 P.2d at 903 (citations omitted). The parties in the case before us stipulated in their Agreed Statement of Facts that the only remaining issue in this case involves the interpretation of the State Farm policy. We have previously stated that the interpretation of an insurance contract involves a question of law. Wellcome v. Home Ins. Co. (1993), 257 Mont. 354, 356, 849 P.2d 190, 192.

The parties in this case stipulated that Carolyn met all of the elements for a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress as set out in Versland v. Caron Transport (1983), 206 Mont. 313, 671 P.2d 583. However, subsequent to the parties' stipulation, this Court decided Sacco v. High Country Independent Press (1995), 271 Mont. 209, 896 P.2d 411, wherein we re-defined and clarified the elements of the torts of negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiff in Sacco had been employed at the High Country Independent Press newspaper in Belgrade as a photographer/reporter. After she left the newspaper's employ, officers of High Country Independent Press, Inc. (HCIP), the corporation that owned the newspaper, made allegations to the Belgrade Police that the plaintiff had stolen proof sheets and photographs from the newspaper's offices. Criminal charges were brought against the plaintiff but were eventually dismissed. The plaintiff brought an action against HCIP and a Belgrade police officer for civil rights violation, malicious prosecution, defamation and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

We held in Sacco that an independent cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress will arise under circumstances where serious or severe emotional distress to the plaintiff was the reasonably foreseeable consequence of the defendant's negligent act or omission. Sacco, 896 P.2d at 426. We also concluded that "serious or severe emotional distress" should be defined by employing the definition of these terms found in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, which provides in pertinent part:

[Emotional distress] includes all highly unpleasant mental reactions, such as fright, horror, grief,...

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