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

Decision Date18 June 1998
Docket NumberNo. 97-393,97-393
Citation1999 MT 17,293 Mont. 140,974 P.2d 623
PartiesWilliam E. WENDELL, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Companies, State Farm Insurance Companies, Thadius Morehead, Joseph Wandler, Eric Blom, and Robert Chenoweth, Defendants and Respondents. . Heard
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Greg J. Skakles, Skakles & Gallagher, Anaconda, Montana, for Appellant.

Susan P. Roy, Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, Missoula, Montana, for Respondents.

Justice WILLIAM E. HUNT, SR. delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 William E. Wendell (Appellant) appeals from the judgment entered by the Second Judicial District Court, Silver Bow County, on its order granting summary judgment to State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Companies, and State Farm Insurance Companies (collectively State Farm). Oral argument was held on June 18, 1998.

¶2 The sole issue presented for review is whether the District Court erred in holding that Appellant was not entitled to uninsured motorist (UM)benefits because his injuries were not "caused by an accident arising out of the operation, maintenance or use of an uninsured motor vehicle" as required by the UM provision in Appellant's policies. We conclude that, in the context of UM coverage, an intentional act may be an "accident," and that "accident" is to be viewed from the insured victim's perspective. We also conclude that the causal relationship test to be applied in determining whether the insured's injuries arose out of the use of an uninsured vehicle is whether the injuries originated from, or grew out of, or flowed from the use of the uninsured vehicle. Whether this required causal connection exists in a particular case is a mixed question of fact and law. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

BACKGROUND

¶3 The following facts are undisputed. On the morning of January 19, 1994, Thadius Morehead (Morehead) was driving his vehicle in Butte, Montana with three friends, Joseph Wandler, Eric Blom, and Robert Chenoweth. The men were driving around Butte with the stated purpose of picking fights at random. The men saw a male individual walking on Front Street, exited their vehicle, and chased the individual. The individual, a Safeway employee, managed to get away by running into Safeway. The individual immediately reported the incident and the license plate number of Morehead's vehicle to the police.

¶4 Morehead and his friends returned to their vehicle and left the scene. Soon thereafter, the men came upon Appellant's vehicle on Harrison Avenue. Appellant was accompanied by a friend and the two were on their way to go fishing. Morehead followed closely behind Appellant and began flashing his lights and honking his horn in an effort to get Appellant's attention and cause him to pull over his car. Thinking the driver to be an acquaintance, Appellant pulled over into the Albertson's parking lot and stopped. Morehead followed and pulled up alongside Appellant. Joseph Wandler (Wandler) exited Morehead's vehicle and approached Appellant. When Appellant rolled down his window, Wandler punched Appellant in the face. When Appellant opened his door, he was dragged out of his vehicle and beaten, punched, and kicked by Wandler and one or more of the other men. The men continued to punch and kick Appellant while he was lying on the ground.

¶5 A bystander who observed the attack called the police, reported the incident, and described Morehead's vehicle. The police were en route to Safeway when they received the dispatch informing them of a similar incident at Albertson's involving the same vehicle that had caused trouble at Safeway. When the police arrived at Albertson's, Eric Blom and Robert Chenoweth started running. Morehead and Wandler were immediately placed under arrest. Blom and Chenoweth were later apprehended by the police and arrested. The four men were charged with violating several criminal laws of Montana.

¶6 At all times pertinent to this action, Morehead maintained an automobile liability insurance policy with State Farm. Appellant asserted a claim under Morehead's policy for injuries Appellant suffered during the attack on January 19, 1994. State Farm denied Appellant benefits stating that Morehead's policy did not cover injuries which were not caused by an accident arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of Morehead's vehicle. Once Appellant was denied coverage under Morehead's policy, he asserted a claim for UM benefits under his own policies issued by State Farm. State Farm denied Appellant UM benefits for the same reason it denied benefits under Morehead's policy. State Farm explained that Appellant's policies did not afford UM coverage for injuries which were not caused by an accident arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle.

¶7 Appellant filed a complaint in District Court against the individuals who had assaulted him to recover damages for personal injury, and against State Farm to recover UM benefits. State Farm filed an answer and counterclaim for declaratory relief, praying for a determination that neither Morehead's liability policy nor the UM provisions of Appellant's policies afforded Appellant coverage for the injuries he received because the injuries were not caused by an accident arising out of the operation, maintenance or use of Morehead's vehicle. State Farm then filed a motion for summary judgment. In its brief supporting the motion for summary judgment, State Farm treated the Morehead vehicle as an uninsured vehicle based on State Farm's previous denial of coverage under Morehead's liability policy. Thus, State Farm limited the scope of its argument and prayer for relief to UM benefits only. Appellant opposed the motion for summary judgment and, in response to State Farm's brief, likewise limited its argument and prayer for relief to UM benefits.

¶8 The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm holding that Appellant was not entitled to UM benefits because his injuries did not arise out of the

operation, maintenance or use of the Morehead vehicle. The court based its holding on the facts that the tortfeasors acted deliberately to harm Appellant, Appellant was injured while both vehicles were parked, and the tortfeasors were not in their vehicle when they assaulted Appellant. Appellant appeals the order granting summary judgment in favor of State Farm.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶9 Our standard of review in appeals from summary judgment rulings is de novo. Ruckdaschel v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. (1997), 285 Mont. 395, 398, 948 P.2d 700, 702. When we review a district court's grant of summary judgment, we apply the same evaluation, based on Rule 56, M.R.Civ.P., as the district court. Bruner v. Yellowstone County (1995), 272 Mont. 261, 264, 900 P.2d 901, 903. In Bruner, we set forth our 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, 272 Mont. at 264, 900 P.2d at 903 (citations omitted).

¶10 In this case, the parties agree that the question before us is whether, under the terms of the UM provisions of Appellant's policies, State Farm was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The interpretation of an insurance policy presents a question of law. Stutzman v. Safeco Ins. Co. of America(1997), 284 Mont. 372, 376, 945 P.2d 32, 34. Therefore, we review whether the District Court correctly interpreted the UM provisions of Appellant's policies. Stutzman, 284 Mont. at 377, 945 P.2d at 34.

DISCUSSION

¶11 Did the District Court err in holding that Appellant was not entitled to UM benefits because his injuries were not caused by an accident arising out of the operation, maintenance or use of an uninsured motor vehicle?

¶12 The insuring agreement for UM coverage in Appellant's policies states:

We [State Farm] will pay damages for bodily injury an insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle. The bodily injury must be caused by accident arising out of the operation, maintenance or use of an uninsured motor vehicle.

This provision generally tracks the language of Montana's uninsured motorist statute, which requires that all automobile liability insurance contracts issued for vehicles registered in this state include coverage to the insured for bodily injury "caused by accident arising out of the operation or use of[an uninsured] vehicle" unless such coverage is affirmatively rejected by the insured. See Section 33-23-201, MCA. The parties do not dispute that Morehead's vehicle is an uninsured vehicle. The parties dispute only (1)whether Appellant's injuries were caused by an accident, and (2) whether the accident arose out of the operation, maintenance or use of Morehead's vehicle.

¶13 Appellant notes that the District Court focused its holding on the "arising out of ..." prong of the analysis, and seemingly disposed of the case on this basis alone. However, Appellant also notes that the District Court predicated its holding on a finding that the tortfeasors acted deliberately, and on the public policy set forth in Mutual Service Cas. Ins. Co. v. McGehee (1985), 219 Mont. 304, 711 P.2d 826, against indemnifying tortfeasors for their own intentional torts. In light of the court's discussion and reliance on McGehee, Appellant asserts that the court fully addressed the "caused by accident" prong of...

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