Williams v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 14722

Decision Date17 May 1994
Docket NumberNo. 14722,14722
Citation229 Conn. 359,641 A.2d 783
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesMark WILLIAMS v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY.

James K. Smith, New Milford, for the appellant (plaintiff).

John W. Lemega, with whom was Daniel P. Scapellati, Hartford, for the appellee (defendant).

William I. Garfinkel, Waterbury, William F. Gallagher, New Haven, and Stewart M. Casper, Stamford, filed a brief for the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Ass'n as amicus curiae.

Before PETERS, C.J., and BORDEN, BERDON, KATZ and PALMER, JJ.

BORDEN, Associate Justice.

The principal issue in this appeal concerns the choice of state law applicable to this insurance contract dispute, involving an automobile accident that occurred in New York state. The plaintiff, Mark Williams, a resident of Connecticut, appeals 1 from the judgment of the trial court denying his application to vacate the award of an arbitration panel in favor of the defendant, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. The panel applied New York law rather than Connecticut law to the dispute, and concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to recovery under New York law. The plaintiff claims that the trial court improperly: (1) applied New York law rather than Connecticut law; and (2) concluded that the plaintiff was not entitled to recovery under New York law. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.

The record reveals the following facts. On June 5, 1987, the plaintiff was operating his motor vehicle on a public thoroughfare in New Windsor, New York, when a vehicle owned and operated by Rolly Bain negligently struck the plaintiff's vehicle. Bain carried a California motor vehicle operator's license and his vehicle was registered in New York.

The plaintiff suffered neck and chest injuries as a result of the accident. He received medical treatment at the scene of the accident and was transported by ambulance to a hospital in West Point, New York. The injury to the plaintiff's neck caused mild pain and inconvenience in the months following the accident and, as of January, 1991, the plaintiff continued to suffer discomfort and disruption of daily activities. Moreover, two physicians estimated a 10 to 15 percent permanent partial disability of the cervical spine. A third physician, however, reported no evidence of permanent injury. The plaintiff, a police officer, has not missed any work as a result of the injury. His medical expenses totaled $2253.

At the time of the accident, Bain, the tortfeasor, was insured for the $10,000 minimum under New York's no-fault insurance law. 2 Bain's insurance carrier exhausted its liability coverage by virtue of a $10,000 payment to the plaintiff. The plaintiff, however, was insured by the defendant under a policy that provided uninsured motorist coverage in the amount of $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident. 3 The plaintiff sought compensation from the defendant for the $15,000 difference between his uninsured motorist coverage and Bain's policy limit. The defendant denied liability and the plaintiff demanded arbitration pursuant to the policy.

For the purposes of arbitration, the defendant conceded that Bain's negligence had been the sole cause of the accident and that Bain was underinsured in the amount of $15,000. 4 The defendant argued, however, that it was not liable because the plaintiff's policy entitled him only to damages that he was "legally entitled to collect"; see footnote 3; and that New York law governed the plaintiff's entitlement. The defendant further contended that under the New York no-fault insurance law, the plaintiff could not maintain an action against the tortfeasor because he had not sustained either "serious injury" or basic economic loss in excess of $50,000. 5 The plaintiff, to the contrary, argued that Connecticut contract law governed the agreement between the parties, and that under Connecticut law the plaintiff was entitled to the benefits. The plaintiff also argued that even if New York law controlled, the plaintiff was legally entitled to collect damages because he had sustained a serious injury.

The arbitrators agreed with the defendant. They concluded that although Connecticut law governed the contract of insurance, New York law governed the question of whether the plaintiff was legally entitled to collect damages from the tortfeasor. Moreover, applying the "most significant relationship" analysis we utilized in O'Connor v. O'Connor, 201 Conn. 632, 519 A.2d 13 [229 Conn. 364] (1986), the panel determined that New York's law should govern because its relationship to the case was more significant than that of Connecticut. Finally, the panel concluded that under New York law, the plaintiff was not entitled to collect damages from the tortfeasor because his injuries were not sufficiently severe.

Pursuant to General Statutes §§ 52-418 and 52-420, the plaintiff filed an application in the Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator's award. The trial court denied the plaintiff's application, essentially for the same reasons relied on by the arbitration panel in rejecting his claim for benefits. This appeal followed.

I

The plaintiff first claims that the trial court improperly concluded that the plaintiff's right to collect damages under his insurance policy was determined by the law of New York. We are not persuaded.

The plaintiff's argument is in two parts. First, the plaintiff argues that the case is controlled by Connecticut's substantive law of contracts. Second, the plaintiff argues that even if the case were controlled by the substantive law of torts, the correct tort law to apply is that of Connecticut. We conclude that under either a tort or a contract analysis, the appropriate law to apply is that of New York. Thus, we need not determine which analysis to use.

A

We first turn to the plaintiff's contention that for choice of law purposes this is a contract case. The plaintiff argues that the insurance policy is a contract between the plaintiff and the defendant. That contract, he contends, obligates the defendant to pay the plaintiff any damages the plaintiff is "legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle." 6 See footnote 3. The plaintiff argues that the phrase "legally entitled to collect" simply requires the injured party to prove fault by the uninsured motorist and the extent of damage. 7 In addition, the plaintiff contends that the policy's definition of uninsured motorists as motorists whose insurance liability limits "are less than required by the financial responsibility act of the state where your car is maintained or garaged"; see footnote 3; invokes Connecticut's no-fault insurance law because the plaintiff's car is maintained and garaged in Connecticut. The plaintiff relies finally on the rule of construction that ambiguity in an insurance contract is resolved against the insurance company that drafted the contract. See Beach v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Co., 205 Conn. 246, 250, 532 A.2d 1297 (1987).

The defendant concedes portions of the plaintiff's argument. It is undisputed that the insurance policy is a contract between the plaintiff and the defendant, and that the defendant is obligated to pay the plaintiff for any damages that the plaintiff is "legally entitled to collect" from the uninsured motorist. Moreover, there is no dispute that the tortfeasor, as a motorist whose liability insurance limit was less than the plaintiff's insurance limit, fits the definition of uninsured motorist in the insurance policy.

The usual rule is that a contract is to be construed according to the law of the place where the contract was made. See Breen v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 153 Conn. 633, 637, 220 A.2d 254 (1966). The mere existence of the right to pursue a claim for uninsured motorist benefits under the contract, however, does not in and of itself entitle the plaintiff to recover those benefits. In order to recover uninsured motorist benefits, the plaintiff must prove, pursuant to the applicable statutes and regulations, as well as the contract, that he is "legally entitled to collect" damages from the uninsured motorist. We disagree with the plaintiff's assertion that this phrase merely requires proof that the uninsured party was at fault.

The purpose of uninsured motorist coverage is to provide a personal injury claimant access to insurance protection to compensate for damages that would have been recoverable if the uninsured motorist had maintained an adequate policy of liability insurance. Smith v. Safeco Ins. Co. of America, 225 Conn. 566, 573, 624 A.2d 892 (1993); Bodner v. United Services Automobile Assn., 222 Conn. 480, 499, 610 A.2d 1212 (1992); Streitweiser v. Middlesex Mutual Assurance Co., 219 Conn. 371, 377, 593 A.2d 498 (1991); Harvey v. Travelers Indemnity Co., 188 Conn. 245, 249, 449 A.2d 157 (1982). Such insurance does not grant an injured party an enhanced right of recovery, beyond the recovery that would have been available had the tortfeasor maintained sufficient insurance. Smith v. Safeco Ins. Co. of America, supra, 225 Conn. at 573, 624 A.2d 892.

Under General Statutes (Rev. to 1991) § 38a-368, 8 a cause of action based on the negligent operation of a motor vehicle is allowable only if certain conditions are satisfied. If those conditions are not satisfied, then the injured party has no recourse beyond the no-fault liability coverage. The plaintiff's argument, however, would put a party injured by an uninsured motorist in a better position than a party injured by a sufficiently insured motorist. If the contractual phrase "legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle" entitled the plaintiff to recover simply upon proof of fault and damages, without proof of the conditions specified in § 38a-368, then the plaintiff would have an additional remedy not available to persons injured by sufficiently...

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