Wamsley v. Nodak Mut. Ins. Co.

Decision Date19 February 2008
Docket NumberNo. DA 06-0194.,DA 06-0194.
Citation178 P.3d 102,2008 MT 56,341 Mont. 467
PartiesCorey Jay WAMSLEY and Jeffrey Alan Wamsley, as Co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Alan and Sharon Wamsley, Deceased, Plaintiffs and Appellees, v. NODAK MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, a North Dakota corporation, and John Doe, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Lester Stanton, Deceased, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Jared S. Dahle, Nelson & Dahle, P.C., Billings, Montana.

For Appellees: Anne G. Biby, Hash & O'Brien, PLLP, Kalispell, Montana.

Justice PATRICIA O. COTTER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 On June 23, 2003, Appellees Corey Jay Wamsley and Jeffrey Alan Wamsley, in their capacities as co-Personal Representatives of the Estate of Alan and Sharon Wamsley (Estate), filed suit against Appellant Nodak Mutual Insurance Company (Nodak) in the Eighteenth Judicial District. The Estate sought compensation for damages from an August 2002 automobile accident near Bozeman, Montana, in which their parents, Alan and Sharon Wamsley (Wamsleys), were killed. In its suit, the Estate sought to "stack," or combine the coverage of, three underinsured motorist (UIM) policies issued to the Wamsleys by Nodak. Nodak disputed its obligation to stack these three policies.

¶ 2 After lengthy legal proceedings, on November 9, 2005, the District Court rendered a stipulated judgment against Nodak pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 54. In its order, the District Court held the Estate could stack all three UIM policies, and rendered final judgment against Nodak in the amount of $400,000.00. On appeal, Nodak challenges this order as well as the District Court's denials of its motion to stay, its motions for summary judgment, its motion to reconsider, and a grant of summary judgment to the Estate on the issue of stacking. We affirm.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

¶ 3 Although complicated, the facts and chronology in this case are not in dispute. On August 8, 2002, the Wamsleys were traveling eastbound in a Chrysler Voyager minivan on Interstate 90 near Bozeman, Montana. Lester Stanton, a Montana resident, was traveling westbound on the opposite side of Interstate 90 at the same time. Stanton was highly intoxicated and passed out while driving. As a result, he crossed the highway meridian and collided with the Wamsleys' minivan. The impact from the crash spun the Wamsleys' vehicle into a motor home which was traveling behind it on Interstate 90. The Wamsleys and Stanton were all killed. The Wamsleys had been residents of North Dakota and insured with Nodak, a North Dakota-based insurance carrier. Stanton was insured by an Idaho-based insurance carrier, Progressive Specialty Insurance. After their death, two of the Wamsleys' six children, Corey and Jeffrey Wamsley, were appointed co-Personal Representatives of the Wamsleys' Estate.

¶ 4 After the accident, the Estate obtained Montana counsel. The Estate received $50,000.00 from Progressive, representing the coverage limits of Stanton's policy. Because the damages from the accident exceeded this amount, the Estate sought additional payment from Nodak under three UIM policies held by the Wamsleys prior to their death. The policies provided UIM coverage in the amount of $100,000.00 per insured, for each vehicle covered. The Wamsleys owned a total of three vehicles covered under these terms, one of which was the Chrysler Voyager minivan which the Wamsleys were driving on August 8, 2002. The other two vehicles were garaged in North Dakota at the time of the accident. If allowed, the stacking of these policies would permit the Estate to seek a total of $600,000.00 in UIM claims.

¶ 5 In December 2002 the Estate's counsel notified Nodak of its intent to stack all three UIM policies. At the time of this demand, we were considering, but had not yet decided, Hardy v. Progressive Specialty Ins. Co., 2003 MT 85, 315 Mont. 107, 67 P.3d 892. At issue in Hardy was the constitutionality of § 33-23-203, MCA, a statute passed by the Montana Legislature which prohibited the stacking of UIM policies. The Estate's Montana counsel notified Nodak of this pending litigation and stated her belief that we would likely find the statute unconstitutional and allow the stacking of UIM claims. As a settlement proposal, the Estate offered to accept $400,000.00 from Nodak in exchange for dropping its UIM claims for the full amount of $600,000.00.

¶ 6 On April 7, 2003, Nodak paid the Estate $200,000.00 for UIM coverage on the Chrysler minivan involved in the accident. However, Nodak continued to dispute its obligation to stack the two remaining UIM policies. On April 18, 2003, we decided Hardy, overturning § 33-23-203, MCA, and holding that stacking of UIM policies was allowed in Montana as a matter of public policy. Hardy, ¶¶ 38, 45. Immediately after Hardy issued, the Estate restated its demand that Nodak provide payment under the remaining two UIM policies, an amount totaling $400,000.00. The Estate set a response deadline of April 28, 2004, after which it stated it would file suit against Nodak. Counsel for Nodak requested more time to study the matter, which the Estate graciously granted. On May 20, 2003, Nodak informed the Estate it was still investigating its demand, and requested further time to complete its investigation.

¶ 7 In truth, Nodak was preparing to seek a declaratory judgment in North Dakota on the Estate's UIM claims. On June 4, 2003, Nodak initiated an action in District Court in Kidder County, North Dakota. Nodak sought a declaration that the Wamsleys' UIM policies could not be stacked under North Dakota law. The Wamsleys' surviving children were named as defendants. A "courtesy" notice of this lawsuit was received by the Estate's counsel on June 6, 2003.

¶ 8 Meanwhile, litigation on this matter was also underway in the Eighteenth Judicial District Court in Gallatin County, Montana. On June 23, 2003, the Estate filed suit against Nodak and sought to stack the UIM policies, seeking recovery of $400,000.00 in compensatory damages. The Estate also sought punitive damages for violations of the Montana Unfair Trade Practices Act, §§ 33-18-101 through 1006, MCA. On July 23, 2003, Nodak responded in the Montana action by filing a "Limited Appearance to Contest Personal Jurisdiction" pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 12. On August 13, 2003, the Estate moved for partial summary judgment on its stacking claims. On August 14, 2003, Nodak filed a motion to stay the Estate's motion pending the outcome of its declaratory judgment action in North Dakota.

¶ 9 On October 7, 2003, while Nodak's motion to stay was under consideration, the North Dakota District Court ruled that North Dakota law would be applied in Nodak's declaratory judgment action. Nodak brought this ruling to the District Court's attention in the Montana action. On November 5, the District Court in Montana held oral argument on Nodak's motion to stay and subsequently denied it.

¶ 10 Notably, on November 11, Nodak moved for partial summary judgment in the Montana District Court, arguing for the first time the District Court lacked personal jurisdiction over it and that North Dakota law should apply to the Estate's claims. Nodak also argued the District Court in Montana was required to grant the North Dakota ruling full faith and credit, and that collateral estoppel barred the Estate from litigating its UIM claims in Montana. On November 14, the District Court held oral argument on the Estate's previous summary judgment motion on the issue of stacking. That same day the District Court ruled it had in personam jurisdiction over Nodak and that the Estate was allowed to stack the UIM policies as a matter of law, in effect refusing to accredit the North Dakota rulings on choice of law.

¶ 11 Five days later, on November 19, 2003, after the Montana District Court had already ruled on the Estate's stacking claims, the North Dakota District Court granted summary judgment to Nodak holding it was not obligated to stack the UIM policies. The next day, the District Court in Montana denied Nodak's motion for partial summary judgment, ruling that North Dakota law did not apply to the Estate's stacking claims in Montana and that the claims were not barred by collateral estoppel. Subsequently, Nodak moved the court to reconsider its denial of Nodak's motions to stay and partial summary judgment. On January 27, 2004, the District Court denied Nodak's motion to reconsider.

¶ 12 On September 13, 2004, the North Dakota Supreme Court, over one dissenting Justice, upheld the North Dakota District Court's declaratory judgment, finding that North Dakota law applied to the UIM claims and did not allow stacking. Nodak Mut. Ins. Co. v. Wamsley, 687 N.W.2d 226 (N.D.2004). On September 30, 2004, the District Court in Montana entered an order rendering judgment against the Estate of Lester Stanton in the amount of $700,000.00. On December 2, 2004, after obtaining this judgment and serving notice on all parties, the Estate moved for partial summary judgment in the amount of $400,000.00 for its UIM claims and sought an entry of final judgment pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 54(b). In response, Nodak opposed the Estate's motion and filed another cross-motion for summary judgment, again arguing that the North Dakota Supreme Court's decision in Nodak should be given full faith and credit. Nodak's motions were again denied.

¶ 13 Other issues not relevant to the current appeal continued to be raised and argued before the District Court. On September 2, 2005, both parties entered into mediation in this matter and subsequently entered into a Stipulation Regarding Final Judgment. Pursuant thereto, on November 9, 2005, the District Court entered final judgment against Nodak in the sum of $400,000.00, and certified the judgment as final pursuant to M.R. Civ. P. 54(b). Nodak timely appealed.

ISSUES

¶ 14 We restate the...

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