Williams v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am.

Decision Date30 July 2015
Docket NumberCase No. C14–0866 RSM.
Citation117 F.Supp.3d 1206
Parties Jill A. WILLIAMS, Plaintiff v. LIFE INSURANCE COMPANY OF NORTH AMERICA, a foreign Insurer, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Washington

William Franklin Tri, Jelsing Tri West & Andrus, Everett, WA, Bradley Jerome Moore, Stritmatter Kessler Whelan, Seattle, WA, for Plaintiff.

Charles C. Huber, D. Michael Reilly, Lane Powell PC, Seattle, WA, for Defendant.

ORDER DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

RICARDO S. MARTINEZ, District Judge.

I. INTRODUCTION

THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the parties' Motions for Summary Judgment. Dkts. # 20 and # 22. The parties seek judgments as a matter of law with respect to coverage under an Accidental Death & Dismemberment ("AD & D") policy issued by Defendant Life Insurance Company of North America's ("LINA") to Plaintiff's now-deceased husband, Michael Williams. Having reviewed the record before it, and having considered the oral arguments presented by the parties on July 28, 2015, the Court now DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment for the reasons discussed herein.

II. BACKGROUND

The sequence of events leading up to this case is undisputed. Plaintiff's now-deceased husband, Michael Williams, was an employee of Public Utility District No. 1 of Snohomish County. Mr. Williams enrolled for two types of insurance through his employer, both issued by Defendant through group policies—basic life insurance under Policy No. FLI 051202, and AD & D insurance under Policy No. OK821591 ("The Policy"). See Dkt. # 23, Ex. A. Plaintiff, Jill Williams, is the primary beneficiary of both policies. Ms. Williams has received benefits under the life insurance policy, and that policy is not at issue here. The current dispute focuses on benefits under the AD & D Policy.

Mr. Williams was a member of the UMF motorcycle club.1 Dkts. # 20 at 3 and # 23, Ex. C at 1. On June 8, 2013, Mr. Williams and approximately 20–25 other riders gathered in Gig Harbor, WA, to ride in memoriam for a fellow UMF rider who had passed away. Id. The riders met at a bar in Gig Harbor at approximately 10:00 a.m. and stayed there for about an hour. Dkt. # 23, Ex. C at 1. They then drove to a bar in Belfair. Id. According to Washington State Patrol Officer Adam Richardson, Mr. Williams was observed drinking several beers at the Belfair bar before being told by another UMF member to slow down because they still had more riding to do. Id. They departed Belfair at approximately 12:30 p.m.

While traveling west on SR 106, Williams was at the front of the pack and was seen swerving by other members of the group.2 A group of an unknown number of sports style motorcycles came up from behind Williams' group at a high rate of speed. All of the sports bike riders passed Williams' group with the exception of two. Those two could not make it past the entire group before a corner and cut into Williams' group, coming very close to several other motorcyclists in the group.
This upset Williams who then got into a verbal argument with one of the sports bike riders. That rider attempted to accelerate away and Williams pursued him at a high rate of speed. Williams and the other rider came to a stop in the roadway and exchanged words for several seconds before the rider of the sport bike accelerated away again.
Williams attempted to chase the other rider at a high rate of speed.
...
Williams was traveling westbound SR 106 near milepost 10.5 at approximately 80 mph when he attempted to negotiate a right hand curve in the roadway. [Dorinda D.] Brown was traveling eastbound SR 106 near milepost 10.5 at or near the posted 40 mph speed limit. Williams was unable to maintain his lane as he rounded the curve and began drifting toward the center line.
Williams braked hard causing his rear tire to skid as he was still travelling toward the oncoming lane. Williams let up on the brake to recover from the skid and braked hard again causing a second skid as he crossed over the center line. Brown braked and steered her vehicle to the right until her tires were to the right of the fog line and on the shoulder in an attempt to avoid the impending collision.
Williams and Brown collided head on in the eastbound lane. The motorcycle struck the front left of the Chevrolet Volt causing significant front end damage as well as airbag deployment. The front wheel and forks on Williams' motorcycle crushed inward toward the rear of his vehicle and peeled the hood and front left fender back on Brown's car.
Williams separated from the motorcycle and struck the lower left portion of Brown's windshield with his helmet. Williams died on impact. After striking the windshield, his helmet buckle broke and the helmet separated from Williams' head coming to a rest in the eastbound ditch to the west of the collision scene. Williams' body continued through the air to the west, finally coming to rest in the center of the roadway 40 feet from the initial impact.

Dkt. # 23, Ex. C at 1–2; see also Dkt. # 21, Ex. A. A subsequent toxicology report revealed that, at the time of the accident, Mr. Williams had a blood alcohol level of 0.17g/100mL—more than two times the legal limit. Dkt. # 23, Ex. B.

Ms. Brown received injuries to her head

, neck and back, and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, WA. Dkts. # 21, Ex. Ex. A and # 24 at ¶¶ 3 and 4. According to Ms. Brown, she has been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. Id. at ¶ 4. As a result, she suffers from amnesia and does not recall the events leading up to the accident or the events which occurred immediately after. Id. at ¶ 2 and Dkt. # 23, Ex. C at 2.

Forensic pathologist Emmanuel Q. Lacsina, M.D., who performed the autopsy of Mr. Williams, concluded:

This 47 year-old white male, Michael Williams, died of multiple blunt force injuries to the head

, neck, torso and lower left extremity, sustained as an operator of a motorcycle which collided with an auto. The manner of death is classified as an ACCIDENT (Traffic).

Dkt. # 21, Ex. B at 1.

After the incident, Ms. Williams made claims under Mr. Williams' life insurance and AD & D policies. On July 8, 2013, Defendant approved Ms. Williams' claim under the life insurance policy. Dkt. # 21, Ex. E. The Claims Specialist handling the claims noted that the claim under the AD & D policy was still under review. Id. On August 23, 2013, Defendant denied Ms. Williams' claim under the AD & D policy. Dkt. # 21, Ex. C. Defendant provided two bases for its denial—first, that the incident was not an "accident" because of the deliberate acts by Mr. Williams preceding the collision, and therefore the incident was not a covered loss under the AD & D policy; and, second, that the incident occurred during the commission of a felony, and benefits are therefore excluded under the felony exclusion in the policy. Id. Ms. Williams appealed the denial, which was rejected on March 25, 2014. Dkt. # 21, Ex. F. The instant lawsuit followed.

III. DISCUSSION
A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate where "the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a) ; Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). In ruling on summary judgment, a court does not weigh evidence to determine the truth of the matter, but "only determine[s] whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Crane v. Conoco, Inc., 41 F.3d 547, 549 (9th Cir.1994)(citing Federal Deposit Ins. Corp. v. O'Melveny & Myers, 969 F.2d 744, 747 (9th Cir.1992) ). Material facts are those which might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505. The parties appear to agree that there are no disputed material facts and that this matter is appropriate for disposition on the instant motions.

B. Relief Sought

Plaintiff now seeks an Order from this Court finding as a matter of law that the felony exclusion is void as a matter of public policy under Washington law, and that Mr. Williams' death was an accident within the meaning of the insurance policy. Dkt. # 20. Defendant seeks judgment as a matter of law that the felony exclusion is not void, and that Mr. Williams' death was not an accident and therefore not covered by the AD & D policy. Dkt. # 22.

C. Interpretation of Insurance Contracts

Under Washington law, "[i]nsurance policies are to be construed as contracts, and interpretation is a matter of law." State Farm General Ins. Co. v. Emerson, 102 Wash.2d 477, 480, 687 P.2d 1139 (1984). "The entire contract must be construed together in order to give force and effect to each clause," and be enforced "as written if the language is clear and unambiguous." Washington Pub. Util. Districts' Utils. Sys. v. Pub. Util. Dist. No. 1 of Clallam County ("Washington Pub."), 112 Wash.2d 1, 10, 771 P.2d 701 (1989) ; see also Transcon. Ins. Co. v. Washington Pub. Utils. Dists.' Util. Sys., 111 Wash.2d 452, 456, 760 P.2d 337 (1988) (explaining that if insurance contract language is clear and unambiguous, the court "may not modify the contract or create ambiguity where none exists"). If, on the other hand, "a policy provision on its face is fairly susceptible to two different but reasonable interpretations, the policy is ambiguous and the court must attempt to discern and enforce the contract as the parties intended." Transcon. Ins. Co., 111 Wash.2d at 456–57, 760 P.2d 337 ; see also Kish v. Ins. Co. of N. Am., 125 Wash.2d 164, 171, 883 P.2d 308 (1994).

An insurance contract "will be given a practical and reasonable interpretation that fulfills the object and purpose of the contract rather than a strained or forced construction that leads to an absurd conclusion, or that renders the contract nonsensical or ineffective." Washington Pub., 112 Wash.2d at 11, 771 P.2d 701 ; see also Tr...

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