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Griffin v. Public Service Mutual Insurance Company

January 25, 2000

THOMAS GRIFFIN AND TONI GRIFFIN, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS,
V.
PUBLIC SERVICE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, A CORPORATION DOING BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT,
V.
RELIANCE NATIONAL INSURANCE COMPANY, A CORPORATION DOING BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT,
AND
HEBEI TEXTILE I/E CORPORATION, A FOREIGN CORPORATION DOING BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, TIANJIN TIANHAI INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING COMPANY AGENCY, A FOREIGN CORPORATION, TIANJIN TIENTSIN MARINE SHIPPING COMPANY, A FOREIGN CORPORATION, AND SEA-LAND SERVICE, INC., A CORPORATION DOING BUSINESS IN THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANTS



Before Judges Pressler, Landau, and Ciancia.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Landau,j.a.d.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Argued November 30, 1999

On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Hudson County.

This appeal arises from the Law Division's grant of summary judgment to defendant Reliance National Insurance Company (Reliance) in a dispute over insurance coverage between insurance carriers arising out of an accident that occurred on April 30, 1992, while a tractor-trailer was being unloaded. The plaintiffs, Thomas and Toni Griffin, instituted a declaratory judgment action against both defendant-appellant Public Service Mutual (PSM), and defendant-respondent Reliance as insurers of the tractor-trailer that was involved in Thomas Griffin's accident. Public Service Mutual insured PJT Transportation, the company that owned the tractor portion of the tractor-trailer. Reliance insured Sea-Land Service, the company that owned the trailer portion, consisting of a container mounted on a chassis.

Plaintiffs had alleged in the personal injury action that the injuries suffered by Thomas Griffin when he opened the doors of the trailer to begin unloading were the result of negligent packing and loading of the container by either Hebei Textiles, Tianjian Tientsin Marine Shipping Company, Tianjin Tianhai International Shipping Company Agency, and/or Sea-Land Service. First consolidated with the declaratory judgment action, the negligence suit was later severed and then settled.*fn1

Plaintiffs instituted the declaratory judgment action seeking to have the Law Division declare that one or both of the insurance companies that provided coverage for the companies that owned the tractor portion of the tractor-trailer and the trailer portion also provided coverage for the entities allegedly involved in the loading of the container. Reliance filed an answer and a cross-claim against PSM, asserting that PSM was the primary insurance carrier for the tractor-trailer. Before PSM could file an answer, plaintiffs and Reliance filed motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the loading and unloading doctrine applied to the negligently loaded container, triggering insurance coverage by the insurance policies issued for the tractor and the trailer.

The Law Division initially granted plaintiffs' cross-motion for summary judgment against Reliance. The judge held that even though the container was loaded in China, it was an "integral part of the vehicle at the time the accident occurred" and "[c]overage attached to the container in this case once it became attached to the chassis. It was in effect when the accident happened." Killeen Trucking, Inc. v. Great Am. Surplus Lines Ins. Co., 211 N.J. Super. 712, 716-17 (App. Div. 1986) (holding that when a container is coupled to a chassis it constitutes a trailer for motor vehicle insurance purposes and will be covered by motor vehicle insurance). The judge found that Reliance, as the insurer of the container and chassis, was to defend and provide insurance coverage for the foreign companies, Tianjian Tientsin Marine Shipping Company (TMSC) and/or Tianjin Tianhai International Shipping Company Agency, who were involved in the allegedly negligent loading of the container.

The court determined that those foreign companies, while not named in the insurance policies, were users of the motor vehicle and entitled to coverage under the motor vehicle liability policies issued by the insurance companies as court-ordered additional insureds. N.J.S.A. 39:6A-3, N.J.S.A. 39:6B-1; Kennedy v. Jefferson Smurfit Co., 147 N.J. 394, 403 (1997) (concluding that statutorily mandated automobile insurance coverage is to be construed broadly and applies to containers loaded negligently and later attached to a tractor); See also Atlantic Mut. Ins. Co. v. Richards, 100 N.J.Super. 180, 185, (Ch. Div. 1968), aff'd, 105 N.J.Super. 48 (App. Div. 1969)(finding that automobile liability coverage extends to negligence in loading or unloading the automotive vehicle). Specifically, these foreign companies were declared court-ordered additional insureds under Reliance's insurance policy.

PSM, however, had not yet entered an appearance in the declaratory judgment action. In consequence, the ruling was limited to Reliance. After receiving the PSM policy issued to PJT Transportation, owner of the tractor, and after PSM filed an answer in the declaratory judgment proceeding, Reliance moved for summary judgment against PSM. Reliance asserted that to the extent it was to provide insurance for the foreign loading entities, that insurance was excess coverage only, and that under the terms of its own policy, PSM afforded primary insurance coverage for those entities. PSM argued below and reasserts on appeal, that summary judgment could not be granted because Reliance never properly established whether or not it had an insurance certification issued by the Interstate Commerce Commission (I.C.C.)*fn2 attached to the policy Reliance provided for Sea-Land.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Reliance, finding that the language of the insurance policies clearly established that PSM provided primary insurance coverage for users of the tractor-trailer and that the Reliance policy provided only excess coverage. We affirm.

The purpose of the I.C.C. regulations in this regard was to ensure that a financially responsible party would be available to compensate a third party injured in a collision with an I.C.C. carrier. American Trucking Assoc. v. United States, 344 U.S. 298, 304-05, 73 S. Ct. 307, 311-12, 97 L. Ed. 2d 337, 352-54 (1953). The I.C.C. required motor carriers to obtain minimum levels of financial responsibility and to file a certificate of insurance with the I.C.C. 49 C.F.R. §§387.7, 387.301.

The I.C.C. Certification form provides two boxes for the insurance carrier to check off whether the insurance coverage the company is providing for a particular insured is primary or excess. PSM contends that federal law required that Reliance have an I.C.C. certification attached to the insurance policy issued to Sea-Land and that because Reliance never submitted an I.C.C. certification, summary dismissal was premature. PSM argues that summary judgment should not have been granted because, had Reliance issued an I.C.C. certification with its policy to Sea-Land, the policy could have established that Reliance provided co-primary insurance coverage with PSM. PSM infers that the regulatory concerns underlying the I.C.C. regulations somehow mandate that Reliance provide co-primary coverage regardless of the terms of the respective policies.

An I.C.C. motor carrier endorsement provides that policy limitations or even violations of an insurance agreement by the insured will not relieve the insurance company of liability for a judgment against the motor carrier. The I.C.C. regulations were "adopted to combat abuses associated with the hiring of tractor owners who failed to meet certain levels of financial responsibility that precluded those injured in accidents with the tractor-trailer from obtaining ...


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