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Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Bland

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

October 10, 2019

Government Employees Insurance Company, Plaintiff,
Deja Bland, Kenneth Allen Jenkins, Jr., and Kyajonae Kabrya Mouzon, Defendants.


          Richard Mark Gerget United States District Court Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant Deja Bland's motion to dismiss. (Dkt. No. 8.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion is denied.

         I. Background

         This is an insurance coverage action in which Government Employees Insurance Company ("GEICO") seeks a declaratory judgment that the automobile insurance policies it issued to Lisa and John Cobin (the "Cobin Policy") and Kareem and Sharmane Bland (the "Bland Policy") do not provide Defendant Deja Bland, the daughter of Kareem and Sharmane Bland, with liability coverage relating to her state court personal injury action arising from a shooting.[1] (Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 28-39.) In Bland's underlying action, she brings tort claims for "assault and battery" and negligence against Jenkins and Mouzon, alleging that on May 22, 2015 in the outdoor common area of the Oakbrook Apartments in Ladson, South Carolina, a vehicle driven by Mouzon "rode up" and Jenkins, a passenger in the vehicle, "fired a gun and negligently shot and injured" her. (Dkt. No. 1-3 ¶¶ 5-10.) Bland argues that GEICO is bound to provide coverage because the Cobin Policy lists Jenkins as an "Additional Driver" and the Bland Policy applies to Bland as an in-resident relative of her parents. (Dkt. No. 9 at 1.) Bland here moves the Court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction over GEICO's declaratory judgment action, to which GEICO responds in opposition.

         II. Legal Standard

         "Pursuant to [the Declaratory Judgment Act], federal courts have the discretion to decide whether to hear declaratory judgment actions." Continental Cas. Co. v. Fuscardo, 35 F.3d 963, 965 (4th Cir. 1994). The Declaratory Judgment Act provides:

[A]ny court of the United States, upon the filing of an appropriate pleading, may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration, whether or not further relief is or could be sought. Any such declaration shall have the force and effect of a final judgment or decree and shall be reviewable as such.

28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). "To determine whether to proceed with a federal declaratory judgment action when a parallel state court action is pending, we have focused on four factors":

(1) whether the state has a strong interest in having the issues decided in its courts; (2) whether the state court could resolve the issues more efficiently than the federal court; (3) whether the presence of overlapping issues of fact or law might create unnecessary entanglement between the state and federal court; and (4) whether the federal action is mere procedural fencing in the sense that the action is merely the product of forum shopping.

Great Am. Ins. Co. v. Gross, 468 F.2d 199, 211 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Nautilus Ins. Co. v. Winchester Homes, Inc., 15 F.3d 371, 377 (4th Cir. 1994)). "The Nautilus factors are not a 'mechanical checklist,' and a district court 'should apply them flexibly in light of the particular circumstances of each case.'" Walker v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., No. 4:16-cv-01388-RBH, 2018 WL 573159, at *4 (D.S.C. Jan. 26, 2018) (quoting VR Compliance LLC v. Home Away, Inc., 715 F.3d570, 573 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         III. Discussion

         GEICO brings three claims for declaratory relief: (1) a declaration that the Cobin Policy does not provide Jenkins or Mouzon coverage because Bland's gunshot injury did not arise out of the "ownership, maintenance or use" of the vehicle; (2) a declaration that the Bland Policy does not provide uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage for the same reason; and (3) a declaration that, in any event, the Cobin Policy excludes coverage in excess of the minimum limits required by South Carolina law for the attempted or successful commission of a felony, and here Jenkins has been arrested and charged with assault and battery in the first degree, which is a felony under South Carolina law. (Dkt. No. 1 ¶¶ 28-39.)[2] Bland argues that the Court should in its discretion abstain from exercising jurisdiction over this declaratory judgment action in light of her tort claims pending in the South Carolina Court of Common Pleas. (Dkt. No. 9 at 5.)

         A. First Nautilus Factor

         The Court first considers whether the Court of Common Pleas has an interest in the issues raised in this declaratory judgment action being resolved in its own court. The district court's "discretionary power to abstain from deciding state-law questions . . . may be exercised only when the questions of state law involved are difficult, complex, or unsettled." Gross, 468 F.3d at 211. The core issue in this federal action is whether the contractual terms of the Cobin Policy or Bland Policy provide liability coverage for gunshot injuries inflicted by Jenkins or Mouzon from inside the vehicle. This issue implicates well-settled South Carolina law that district courts in this Circuit have previously applied, including on the narrow issue of when a gunshot injury inflicted from inside a vehicle on a person outside the vehicle arises from the "ownership, maintenance, or use" of the vehicle. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Aytes,503 S.E.2d 744, 745 (1998). See, e.g., Nationwide Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Jeter, No. 3:12-1759-MBS, 2013 WL 3109214, at *5 (D.S.C. June 18, 2013); Holmes v. Allstate Ins. Co., 786 F.Supp.2d 1022, 1027 (D.S.C. 2009) (PMD); State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Bookert,523 S.E.2d 181 (1999); Wausau ...

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