ESTATE OF RONALD DOERFLER and STEPHANIE E. DOERFLER, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
FEDERAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant-Respondent. STEPHANIE E. DOERFLER, Plaintiff-Appellant,
CHUBB INSURANCE COMPANY OF NEW JERSEY, Defendant-Respondent.
April 11, 2018
appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Ocean
County, Docket Nos. L-2960-14 and L-0483-14.
N. Ellison (Reed Smith LLP) of the Pennsylvania Bar, admitted
pro hac vice, argued the cause for appellant (Reed Smith,
attorneys; John N. Ellison and Douglas R. Widin, on the
McKay, III argued the cause for respondents (Cozen
O'Connor, attorneys; Thomas McKay, III and Richard M.
Mackowsky, on the brief).
Judges Fuentes, Manahan and Suter.
October 29 and 30, 2012, Super-Storm Sandy made landfall near
Atlantic City, sixty miles south of the Borough of
Mantoloking. The storm brought wind gusts as high as eighty
miles per hour. The devastation caused to our shore
communities by this fury of nature is
well-documented. On February 19, 2014, plaintiff Stephanie
Doerfler filed a complaint against Chubb Insurance Company of
America (Chubb) alleging breach of contract and bad faith in
connection with a homeowner's insurance policy. Chubb
filed a responsive pleading that asserted a number of
affirmative defenses, including that Doerfler's loss was
not covered because of the surface water exclusion in the
policy. On September 5, 2014, the court severed
Doerfler's claims for breach of contract and bad
October 17, 2014, Doerfler and the Estate of Ronald Doerfler
(collectively the Estate) filed a complaint alleging similar
claims against defendant Federal Insurance Company
(Federal). In its responsive pleading, Federal also
asserted as an affirmative defense the insurance policy's
exclusion for loss caused by surface water. In an order dated
March 16, 2015, the court severed the Estate's bad faith
claim and suspended discovery related to it, pending the
outcome of the breach of contract claim.
are members of the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies.
Plaintiffs purchased identical Chubb Masterpiece
homeowners' insurance policies. Doerfler's policy
insured her residential property located on Ocean Avenue in
the Borough of Mantoloking, including the personal property
kept therein. The policy was in effect from November 16,
2011, to November 16, 2012; the dwelling was insured for
$904, 000 and the contents kept therein for $361, 600. The
Estate's policy purchased by Ronald Doerfler, now
deceased, also insured property located on Ocean Avenue in
Mantoloking, and was in effect from October 1, 2012, to
October 1, 2013. The policy insured the dwelling for $2, 441
million and the contents of the house for $976, 400.
joinder of issue on the breach of contract claim, the parties
cross-moved for summary judgment. The matter came for oral
argument before a different judge on February 5, 2016. The
transcript of the oral argument session reflects an active
and probing discussion between counsel and the motion judge.
The discussion focused on the language of the exclusion
provision in the policies:
[W]e do not cover any loss caused by: flood, surface water,
waves, tidal water, overflow of water from a body of water, .
. .; or spray from any of these even if driven by wind.
exclusions section defined the words "caused by" to
"mean any loss that is contributed to, made worse by, or
in any way results from that peril."
motion judge reserved decision at the conclusion of oral
argument. In two orders entered on February 5, 2016, the same
day of the oral argument session, the motion judge granted
defendants' motions for summary judgment; in two other
orders entered the same day, the judge denied plaintiffs'
cross-motions for summary judgment. The judge did not issue
"an opinion or memorandum decision, either written or
oral, " nor make any factual findings or state any
conclusions of law as required by Rule 1:7-4(a). On
March 14, 2016, the judge entered a Final Judgment Order
"in favor" of defendants Chubb and Federal and
"against" plaintiffs Doerfler and the Estate
"on all issues and claims relating to the liability of
the defendant[s] to the plaintiff[s] as alleged in Count I
and II of plaintiff[s]' Amended Complaint[s] for the
reasons set forth in defendantrs1' motion
papers." (emphasis added).
light of this uncontested procedural history, we are
compelled to reverse and remand this matter to the Law
Division, not because we conclude there are material issues
of facts in dispute which should be decided by a jury, or
because we disagree with the motion judge's legal
analysis or conclusions of law; we reach this decision
because the motion judge failed to make any findings of facts
or reach any conclusions of law, as mandated by Rule ...