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Kiawah Island Utility Inc v. Westport Insurance Corp.

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

October 22, 2019




         This matter is before the court on defendant Westport Insurance Corporation's (“Westport”) motion to dismiss, ECF No. 23. For the reasons set forth below, the court denies the motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Westport provided property and business interruption insurance coverage to plaintiff Kiawah Island Utility, Inc. (“KIU”) from September 1, 2015 to September 1, 2016. KIU entered into a contract (“the Contract”) with defendant Mears Group Inc. (“Mears”) to install an underground pipeline running from Kiawah Island to Johns Island (“the Project”). The Project consisted of using horizontal directional drilling to bore an underground hole and then pulling pipe through the hole. During this process, the pipe got stuck in the borehole, and Mears's work was lost. As a result, Mears had to drill a second borehole and install a new section of pipeline. Mears informed KIU that it incurred approximately $7 million to repair and/or replace the damaged pipeline and asked KIU to submit a claim for the loss to KIU's builder's risk insurer. KIU disagreed that the Contract required KIU to provide builder's risk insurance for the Project but nevertheless submitted the claim to Westport. Westport denied coverage for the claim.[1]

         On September 8, 2017, Mears filed suit against KIU seeking a declaration that KIU was responsible under the Contract for obtaining primary builder's risk insurance and alleging that KIU breached the Contract for failing to do so, causing Mears to suffer $7 million of damages (“the Mears action”). Mears subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment in the Mears action, and in response, KIU raised the argument that even if KIU did breach the Contract by failing to procure builder's risk insurance, Mears was not damaged by the breach because the damage to the pipeline was incurred by Mears's faulty workmanship, which is excluded from coverage under the Policy and under builder's risk insurance policies. The court granted summary judgment on the declaratory judgment cause of action in favor of Mears, holding that the Contract did require KIU to obtain primary builder's risk insurance. The court denied summary judgment as to the breach of contract cause of action, finding that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Mears engaged in faulty workmanship and thus had been damaged by KIU's breach.

         KIU then filed this declaratory judgment action on May 9, 2019 seeking, as to Westport, declarations that the Policy provides coverage for the pipeline damage, that the Policy must provide coverage up to the amount of available coverage, and that any of KIU's liability in the Mears action is covered by the “Insured's Liability” provision of the Policy (“the KIU action”). Westport filed its motion to dismiss on June 25, 2019. ECF No. 23. KIU responded on July 23, 2019, ECF No. 40, and Westport replied on August 6, 2019, ECF No. 52. The court held a hearing on the motion on September 12, 2019. The motion is now ripe for review.

         II. STANDARD

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted “challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009) (citations omitted); see also Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (“A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) . . . does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.”). To be legally sufficient, a pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion should not be granted unless it appears certain that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts that would support his claim and would entitle him to relief. Mylan Labs., Inc. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1134 (4th Cir. 1993). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court should accept all well-pleaded allegations as true and should view the complaint in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Ostrzenski v. Seigel, 177 F.3d 245, 251 (4th Cir.1999); Mylan Labs., Inc., 7 F.3d at 1134. “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.


         Westport bases its motion to dismiss on the doctrine of judicial estoppel. Westport argues that in the Mears action, KIU has maintained that Mears engaged in faulty workmanship, and that KIU cannot now switch positions and argue that it is entitled to coverage under the Westport policy because Mears did not engage in faulty workmanship. KIU first responds that Westport's assertions of judicial estoppel is inappropriate at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage of litigation and then argues that judicial estoppel does not apply here. The court addresses each in turn, finding that judicial estoppel generally may be applicable at this stage of litigation but ultimately concluding that it does not apply here. The court then briefly discusses another argument raised by Westport but declines to consider it for procedural reasons.

         A. Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

         Westport first argues that judicial estoppel is an affirmative defense and can serve as a basis for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6). KIU disagrees, arguing that judicial estoppel is inappropriate at this early stage of litigation. The question of whether judicial estoppel can be applied when considering a motion to dismiss simply requires the court to refer back to the basic standard of Rule 12(b)(6), namely, that “courts are limited to considering the sufficiency of allegations set forth in the complaint and the ‘documents attached or incorporated into the complaint.'” Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int'l, Ltd., 780 F.3d 597, 606 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 448 (4th Cir. 2011). In light of this standard of review, some courts have declined to apply judicial estoppel when considering a 12(b)(6) motion because the court needs more information than can be found in the complaint to determine whether judicial estoppel applies. See, e.g., Brown v. Lieutenant Governor's Office on Aging, 697 F.Supp.2d 632, 639 (D.S.C. 2010) (finding the issue of judicial estoppel at 12(b)(6) stage of litigation to be inappropriate because it could not be resolved by consideration of the complaint alone). However, other courts have considered judicial estoppel in a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss when the limited information before the court is sufficient to determine whether judicial estoppel should apply. See, e.g., Briggs v. Newberry Cty. Sch. Dist., 838 F.Supp. 232, 237 (D.S.C. 1992), aff'd, 989 F.2d 491 (4th Cir. 1993) (finding that, while not necessary for disposition of the motion to dismiss, judicial estoppel could be applied).

         Here, Westport argues for judicial estoppel using the complaint in this action and various filings in the Mears action. The court can clearly consider the complaint, and Westport contends that the court can consider filings in the Mears action because they are public records. Indeed, at the 12(b)(6) stage, “a court may consider official public records” such as court records. Witthohn v. Fed. Ins. Co., 164 Fed.Appx. 395, 396 (4th Cir. 2006). At the hearing on the motion, KIU agreed that the court can consider the filings in the Mears action in making its determination at this stage of litigation. As such, because the court only needs to consider the complaint and court records from the Mears action to determine whether judicial estoppel applies, the court can conduct a judicial estoppel analysis even at this early stage of litigation.

         B. ...

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