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State National Insurance Co. v. County of Camden

March 17, 2010

STATE NATIONAL INSURANCE COMPANY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE COUNTY OF CAMDEN AND ASSISTANT COUNTY COUNSEL DONNA WHITESIDE, DEFENDANTS.
THE COUNTY OF CAMDEN, COUNTERCLAIMANT AND THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
STATE NATIONAL INSURANCE COMPANY, COUNTERCLAIM-DEFENDANT AND NICHOLAS M. ANDERSON, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT, AND SCIBAL ASSOCIATES, INC., THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT AND THIRD-PARTY COUNTERCLAIMANT. SCIBAL ASSOCIATES, INC., FOURTH-PARTY PLAINTIFF,
v.
DONNA WHITESIDE AND MEADOWBROOK INSURANCE GROUP, FOURTH-PARTY DEFENDANTS. THE INSURANCE COMPANY OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, INTERVENING PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE COUNTY OF CAMDEN, DONNA WHITESIDE AND SCIBAL ASSOCIATES, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge

OPINION

This case concerns the determination of which entity or person is liable to pay for a multi-million dollar state court jury verdict in favor of a plaintiff who sued the County of Camden, New Jersey for injuries he sustained when he drove off the road and into a guardrail owned and maintained by the County. Presently before the Court are the motions of County in-house counsel Donna Whiteside to dismiss the claims made against her by plaintiff State National Insurance Company and intervening plaintiff The Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania ("ICSOP"). For the reasons expressed below, Whiteside's motions will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Because this is the third Opinion addressing motions by various parties, the Court will not restate the background facts, other than to summarize them as follows. On December 23, 2004, Nicholas Anderson was driving on Raritan Avenue in Waterford, New Jersey when he drove off the road and hit a guardrail. Anderson sustained serious injuries, including an amputated leg and nearly amputated arm. On December 20, 2006, Anderson filed suit in New Jersey state court against the County of Camden (the "County"), which owned and maintained the road and guardrail. Anderson claimed that the County's negligent maintenance of the road and guardrail were the proximate cause of his injuries. The case went to trial, and on October 17, 2008, the jury returned a $31 million verdict against the County, which has since been adjusted tom just under $19.5 million. On October 20, 2008, State National Insurance Company ("State National") filed a declaratory judgment action in this Court against the County, seeking a declaration that it does not owe coverage to the County for the Anderson lawsuit under an excess liability insurance contract. State National contends that the County's delay in notifying it of the lawsuit, its repeated representation that the case was within the County's $300,000 self-insured retention, its errors in investigating and defending the case, and its revaluation of the case four days into trial, breached the insurance contract's notice provision and the adequate investigation and defense condition to coverage. In its amended complaint, State National also contends, inter alia, that Donna Whiteside, in-house counsel for the County who handled the Anderson case, committed legal malpractice by not properly defending the County and State National's interests.

Shortly after State National filed its complaint, ICSOP filed an intervening third-party complaint against State National, the County, Whiteside, and Scibal Associates. ICSOP had provided an excess liability policy to the County, effective July 1, 2004 through July 1, 2005, with limits of liability of $5 million for each occurrence and in the aggregate. According to ICSOP, the ICSOP policy was not to be implicated until the County's $300,000 self-insured retention and the $10 million first-level excess liability insurance policy limits provided by State National were met. In its third-party complaint, ICSOP seeks a declaration that the County breached the notice provision in the ICSOP insurance policy, and it therefore is not obligated to pay the $5 million policy limit. Specifically, ICSOP claims that the County's failure to notify ICSOP of the Anderson lawsuit until seven weeks after the jury verdict--three years after the filing of the lawsuit and four years after the accident--violates the policy's requirement to notify ICSOP "as soon as practicable of any accident or occurrence which may result in any claim or suit" under the policy. Because the County breached the notice requirement, ICSOP contends that it suffered appreciable prejudice by being unable to participate in the underlying lawsuit, including conducting its own investigation, communicating with State National regarding its obligations as first-level excess insurer, and participating in any settlement negotiations. ICSOP further attributes its damages specifically to County counsel Whiteside, and has asserted claims for indemnification and contribution against her should it be determined that ICSOP must pay.

Whiteside has moved to dismiss State National's and ICSOP's claims against her. As discussed in more detail below, Whiteside argues that even if all of State National's claims against her are true, State National cannot prove any damages attributable to her, and therefore its claims against her must be dismissed. Whiteside also argues that ICSOP's claims against her must be dismissed for the same reasons as State National's, but also because ICSOP's claims for contribution and indemnification are unsupportable by law. Additionally, Whiteside contends that the claims of both State National and ICSOP are premature, and they must be dismissed on that basis if not for the other reasons.

DISCUSSION

A. Jurisdiction

This Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332 because there is complete diversity of citizenship between the parties and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000.

B. Motion to Dismiss Standard

When considering a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), a court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 351 (3d Cir. 2005). It is well settled that a pleading is sufficient if it contains "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Under the liberal federal pleading rules, it is not necessary to plead evidence, and it is not necessary to plead all the facts that serve as a basis for the claim. Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 562 F.2d 434, 446 (3d Cir. 1977). However, "[a]lthough the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure do not require a claimant to set forth an intricately detailed description of the asserted basis for relief, they do require that the pleadings give defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Baldwin County Welcome Ctr. v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 149-50 n.3 (1984) (quotation and citation omitted).

A district court, in weighing a motion to dismiss, asks "'not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claim.'" Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1969 n.8 (2007) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhoades, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) ("Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for 'all civil actions' . . . ."); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) ("Iqbal . . . provides the final nail-in-the-coffin for the 'no set of facts' standard that applied to federal complaints before Twombly.").

Following the Twombly/Iqbal standard, the Third Circuit has instructed a two-part analysis in reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6). First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; a district court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210 (citing Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950). Second, a district court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. (quoting Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950). A complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief. Id.; see also Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (stating that the "Supreme Court's Twombly formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus: 'stating . . . a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest' the required element. This 'does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage,' but instead 'simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary element"). A court need not credit either "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" in a complaint when deciding a motion to dismiss. In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1429-30 (3d Cir. 1997). The defendant bears the burden of showing that no claim has been presented. Hedges v. U.S., 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Kehr Packages, Inc. v. Fidelcor, Inc., 926 F.2d 1406, 1409 (3d Cir. 1991)).

Finally, a court in reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion must only consider the facts alleged in the pleadings, the documents attached thereto as exhibits, and matters of judicial notice. Southern Cross Overseas Agencies, Inc. v. Kwong Shipping Group Ltd., 181 F.3d 410, 426 (3d Cir. 1999). A court may consider, however, "an undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiff's claims are based on the document." Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). If any other matters outside the pleadings are presented to the ...


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