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Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Co. v. Evans

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

November 9, 2018

Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company, Plaintiff,
v.
Thomas L. Evans, as attorney in fact for Thomas W. Evans, an incapacitated adult, and Ambria Jones Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Before the court for review in this declaratory judgment action is Plaintiff Nationwide Property and Casualty Insurance Company's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 22). Plaintiff asserts it is entitled to summary judgment because an automobile policy issued by Plaintiff to Defendant Ambria Jones' mother does not provide liability coverage for a vehicular accident involving Defendants. (Id. at 2.) For the reasons that follow, the court GRANTS Plaintiff's Motion.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On February 22, 2017, Defendant Thomas L. Evans, attorney in fact for Thomas W. Evans, [1]sued Defendant Jones for negligence in the Court of Common Pleas in York County, South Carolina. (ECF No. 1-1 at 3 ¶ 14.) Approximately three (3) years earlier, on March 2, 2014, Defendant Jones and Evans were involved in a vehicular accident that left Evans “mentally impaired and physically incapacitated.” (Id. at 1-2.) In his Complaint, Defendant Evans alleged that on March 2, 2014, Evans was a passenger in a 1997 Dodge Dakota pickup truck traveling south on a highway in York County. (ECF No. 1-1 at 5.) At the same time and on the same highway, Defendant Jones was a passenger in a 2007 Honda traveling north and being driven by Jimesha McLendon. (Id.) Defendant Evans alleges that, “As [McLendon] began to approach the car in which [Evans] was a passenger, Defendant [Jones] was engaging in horseplay with [McLendon] and attempted to grab the steering wheel of the car in which [Jones] was in the passenger seat.” (Id. at ¶ 8.) Defendant Evans claims McLendon then lost control of the car, crossed the center line of the highway, and collided head on with the car in which Evans was a passenger, causing Evans to be thrown from the car. (Id. at ¶ 9, 11.) In her Answer to Defendant Evans' Complaint, [2] Defendant Jones denied engaging in horseplay with McLendon and attempting to grab the steering wheel. (ECF No. 31-3 at 1 ¶ 8, 2 ¶ 10.)

         Prior to the March 2, 2014 accident, Plaintiff issued a North Carolina automobile policy to Defendant Jones' mother, Antonja Brewton, on a 2009 Nissan Altima (the “Policy”), which was effective at the time of the accident. (ECF No. 22-2 at 1.) The 2009 Nissan Altima was the only car covered by the Policy. (Id. at 2.) The Policy insured “family member[s], ” which, under the terms of the Policy, are defined as “person[s] related to you by blood, marriage, or adoption who [are] a resident of your household. This includes a ward or foster child.” (Id. at 6.) The Policy further provides,

We will pay damages for bodily injury or property damage for which any insured becomes legally responsible because of an auto accident. . . . We have no duty to defend any suit or settle any claim for bodily injury or property damage not covered under this policy.

(Id. at 7.) The Policy also includes the following exclusion: “We do not provide Liability Coverage for any insured . . . [u]sing a vehicle without a reasonable belief that that insured is entitled to do so. This exclusion does not apply to a family member using your covered auto which is owned by you.” (ECF No. 22-2 at 8.)

         On July 24, 2017, Plaintiff filed this declaratory judgment action. (ECF No. 1 at 2). Plaintiff seeks a declaration from the court that (1) “the interpretation of the insurance contract will be governed by North Carolina law” (id. at 4 ¶ 16); (2) “the acts of Defendant Jones, as alleged in the Underlying Complaint, do not trigger the liability of the . . . [P]olicy” (id. at 5 ¶ 21); and (3) “the . . . [P]olicy excludes liability coverage for any damages sustained” in the March 2, 2014 accident (id. at 6 ¶ 26). Plaintiff argues it is entitled to these declarations because (1) “[t]he Nationwide [Auto] [P]olicy was issued in North Carolina to a North Carolina Resident and insured a 2009 Altima registered and principally garaged in North Carolina” (id. at 4 ¶ 15); (2) “[t]he . . . [P]olicy provides liability coverage to insureds who become legally responsible for damages for their ‘ownership, maintenance, or use of an auto'. . . . [and] [t]he conduct alleged in the Underlying Complaint to have been committed by [Defendant] Jones does not constitute the ‘ownership, maintenance or use' of the 2007 Honda” (id. at 5 ¶ 19-20); and (3) “Defendant Jones did not have a reasonable belief that she was entitled to grab the steering wheel of the 2007 Honda while she was riding as a passenger in th[at] [car]” (id. at 5 ¶ 25).

         On August 22, 2017, Defendant Evans filed an Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 7.) Defendant Evans asserts he is a citizen and resident of North Carolina, not South Carolina, as Plaintiff alleges. (Id. at 2 ¶ 3.) Defendant Evans further argues that Defendant Jones' mother, the named insured on the Policy, is a necessary party “and resident of North Carolina. As such, properly brought, this case would lack complete diversity and should be commenced in South Carolina [s]tate [c]ourt.” (Id. at 2 ¶ 4.) (See also Id. at 5 ¶ 31-33, 6 ¶ 34-35.) Additionally, Defendant Evans asserts (1) Plaintiff's Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and (2) Plaintiff incorrectly interpreted the Nationwide Auto Policy and that a correct interpretation would entitle Defendant Evans to payment for his father's injuries. (Id. at 5 ¶ 29, 30.)

         On September 14, 2017, Defendant Jones filed her Answer to Plaintiff's Complaint. (ECF No. 12.) Defendant Jones “denies she was engaging in any type of horseplay” with McLendon, but admits McLendon lost control of the car and crossed the center line, causing the March 2, 2014 accident.[3] (Id. at 12 ¶ 8-9.)

         On May 8, 2018, the parties stipulated and agreed to the following facts:

1. The automobile accident occurred on March 2, 2014 at 3:50 p.m.
2. At the time of the accident, Thomas W. Evans was a passenger in a 1997 Dodge Dakota pick-up truck being driven by Harper McCoy in the southbound lane of U.S. Highway 21 in York County, South Carolina.
3. At the time of the accident, Ambria Jones was a passenger in a 2007 Honda being driven by Jimesha McLendon in the northbound lane of U.S. Highway 21 in York County, South Carolina.
4. Jimesha McClendon states that as the two vehicles approached one another from opposite directions, Ambria Jones grabbed the steering wheel of the 2007 Honda from Jimesha McLendon.
5. Jimesha McClendon states as a result of Jones grabbing the steering wheel, McLendon lost control of the Honda and crossed the center line of U.S. Highway 21 causing the 2007 Honda to strike the 1997 Dodge driven by Harper McCoy in a head on collision.
6. Jones did not intend to cause the collision.
7. Ambria Jones was not asked to grab the steering wheel and Jimesha McLendon did not give express or implied permission for Ambria Jones to grab the steering wheel.
8. As a result of the collision, Thomas W. Evans was ejected from McCoy's vehicle and suffered injuries.

(ECF No. 20 at 1-2.)

         On May 8, 2018, Plaintiff moved for summary judgment. (ECF No. 22.) Defendant Jones responded to Nationwide's Motion on May 15, 2018. (ECF No. 25.) On May 21, 2018, Defendant Evans filed a Memorandum of Law in Opposition (“Response in Opposition”) to Nationwide's Motion. (ECF No. 28.) On May 29, 2018, Nationwide filed a Reply to Defendant Evans' Response in Opposition. (ECF No. 31.)

         II. JURISDICTION

         The court has diversity jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a) based on Plaintiff's allegations that the action is between citizens of different states and/or countries and the amount in controversy is in excess of $75, 000.00, exclusive of interest and costs. (ECF No. 1 at 1 ¶ 1-3, 2 ¶ 4-6.) Specifically, Plaintiff alleges it is an Ohio corporation with its principal place of business in Ohio, though it is authorized to sell insurance policies in North and South Carolina. (Id. at 1 ¶ 1.) Defendants are citizens of North Carolina. (ECF No. 12 at 1 ¶ 2; ECF No. 7 at 2 ¶ 3.) Plaintiff brings this action pursuant to the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, and Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 57. (ECF No. 1 at 2 ¶ 5.) In this regard, the court is satisfied complete diversity exists between the parties[4] and the amount in controversy is sufficient to confer jurisdiction on this court.[5]

         III. ...


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