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Bruce Cassidy, Administrator of the Estate of William B. Eckel, Deceased v. Ohio Casualty Group A/K/A West American Insurance Co.

August 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Thompson, U.S.D.J.




This matter has come before the Court upon the Motion for Summary Judgment [docket # 10] filed by Defendants Ohio Casualty Group, a/k/a West American Insurance Co., a/k/a Peerless Insurance Co. a/k/a Liberty Mutual Group ("Defendants") and upon the Motion for Summary Judgment [docket # 11] filed by Plaintiff Bruce Cassidy, Administrator of the Estate of William B. Eckel, deceased ("Plaintiff"). The Court has decided the motion on consideration of the parties' written submissions, without holding oral argument, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78(b). For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion is granted, and Plaintiff's Motion is denied.


This case arises out of a claim for benefits under an automobile insurance policy. Plaintiff is the administrator of the estate of William B. Eckel, who suffered fatal injuries in a car accident in December 2008. Eckel was the passenger; the driver was an underinsured motorist named Dana Sanfilppo. After Eckel's death, Plaintiff made a claim for benefits under a policy issued by Defendants to Eckel's grandfather, Frank J. Kohler. Defendants rejected the claim, and Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit claiming breach of contract and seeking a declaratory judgment. The two primary issues are (1) whether Eckel qualifies as an "insured" under the policy issued to Kohler and (2) if so, whether the policy's underinsured motorist coverage covers Eckel for the accident in Sanfilppo's car.

The automobile insurance policy in question ("the Policy") was issued by Defendants to Kohler for a 1993 Ford F150 and a 2002 Ford F150. (Defts.' Statement of Material Undisputed Facts ¶ 1) [10-3]. The Policy was originally issued in 2002 and was renewed annually, including for the year beginning January 22, 2008. (Id.) Under the Policy's definitions, an "insured" is defined as "you [Kohler] for any covered 'auto." (John T. Coyne Certification Ex. C, at OC 0013) [10-2] And this definition was amended to include a "family member" of the individual named in the policy who is (1) related "by blood, adoption, marriage, or civil union recognized under New Jersey law" to the named insured, and (2) a resident in the named insured's household. (Id. at OC 0043, OC 0050.) It appears undisputed that Eckel was a blood relative of Kohler's. It is less clear, however, that Eckel was a resident in Kohler's household. Plaintiff presents as evidence a letter from the Internal Revenue Service sent to Eckel at Kohler's address a few months before Eckel died. (Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. B, at 1) [11-1]. Defendants point out, though, that the police report from the accident lists a different address for Eckel. (See Coyne Certification Ex. B, at 1) [10-2].

The Policy provides an insured with several types of coverage. These are listed in "Item Two" of the Policy and include coverage for liability, uninsured motorist ("UM"), underinsured motorist ("UIM"), and physical damage. (Id. Ex. C, at OC 008.) The Policy affords coverage only to events involving "covered autos," and Item Two provides a line under each type of insurance where a "Covered Auto Symbol" can be listed. (Id.) The Covered Auto Symbols provide a shorthand for definitions that are provided separately. Symbol 7 is the most restrictive: it defines "covered auto" to include only those vehicles specifically described in the Policy (i.e. the two Ford F150's). (Id. at OC 0012). Symbol 1 is the least restrictive: it defines "covered auto" as "any 'auto.'" (Id.) For Kohler's Policy, liability insurance is limited to Symbols 7, 8, and 9, and UM and Physical Damage coverage are limited to Symbol 7. However, the key to this case is that there is no Covered Auto Symbol listed under the UIM coverage line. Plaintiff argues that, absent any symbol, the Policy must be interpreted to provide the least restrictive coverage for UIM-that is, Symbol 1 ("any auto") coverage. If Symbol 1 applies, then Eckel would be covered because "any auto" obviously includes Sanfilppo's. Defendants counter that interpreting the contract to meet the parties' reasonable expectations would mean treating UIM coverage like UM coverage-that is, restricted to Symbol 7 autos.

After Defendants rejected Plaintiff's claim for $500,000 in UIM coverage, Plaintiff initiated this lawsuit. Plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that Eckel qualifies as an insured and that the accident in Sanfilppo's car is covered under the Policy's UIM coverage. Both parties have now moved for summary judgment.


A.Legal Standard

Summary judgment is proper when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The Court will "view the inferences to be drawn from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Id.; Curley v. Klem, 298 F.3d 271, 276--77 (3d Cir. 2002). In resolving a motion for summary judgment, the Court must determine "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 251-- 52 (1986). More specifically, the Court must grant summary judgment against any party "who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If the movant's motion is supported by facts, the party opposing summary judgment "may not rely merely on allegations or denials in its own pleading; rather, its response must . . . set out specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)(2). More than a mere "scintilla of evidence" supporting the non-moving party is required. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Properly applied, Rule 56 will "isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses" before those issues come to trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323--24.


The two key issues before us are (1) whether Eckel qualifies as an "insured" under the policy issued to Kohler, and (2) if so, whether the policy's UIM coverage applies to the injuries Eckel suffered while he was in Sanfilppo's car. As to the first issue, we note that the evidence of Eckel's residence is disputed, which creates a genuine issue concerning whether he qualifies as an "insured" under the contract by virtue of his relation to Kohler and his residence in Kohler's household. Nevertheless, we will assume without deciding that Eckel qualifies as an insured because, as discussed below, we find that the insured could not have reasonably expected that the UIM coverage would apply to ...

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