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State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Goyeneche

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

December 18, 2019

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Respondent,
v.
Beverly Goyeneche, David R. Gray, III and Amanda Goyeneche (a/k/a Amanda Goyeneche-Gray), individually and as Parent and Natural Guardian of S.G., Defendants, Of Whom Beveryly Goyeneche, and Amanda Goyeneche are the Appellants. Appellate Case No. 2016-000840

          Heard June 7, 2018

          Appeal From Darlington County Paul M. Burch, Circuit Court Judge.

          Karl Huggins Smith, of Smith Watts & Associates, LLC, of Hartsville, for Appellants.

          Jonathan M. Robinson, of DuBose Robinson Morgan, PC, of Camden, for Respondent.

          MCDONALD, J.

         This is a declaratory judgment action to determine whether State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. (State Farm) has a duty to defend and provide liability and underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage following the death of an unattended child (S.G.) in a vehicle insured by a State Farm automobile policy. Appellants Beverly Goyeneche (Grandmother) and Amanda Goyeneche (Mother) appeal the circuit court's order finding their claims arising from S.G.'s death are excluded from coverage and State Farm has no duty to defend or indemnify Grandmother, Mother, or David R. Gray, III (Father).[1] Appellants argue the circuit court erred in (1) finding the State Farm policies issued to S.G.'s parents and grandmother provide no coverage for S.G.'s death; (2) rejecting persuasive authority from other jurisdictions; and (3) determining S.G. was a resident relative of only Mother's household. We affirm.

         Stipulated Facts[2]

         The underlying facts of this case are tragic. On the morning of May 8, 2014, Father placed thirteen-month-old S.G. into her car seat in the back seat of his truck, intending to take her to daycare. However, Father instead drove to work, leaving S.G. unattended in the back seat of the truck. Father's truck was parked, with the ignition off, from approximately 9:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m., 1:15 p.m. until 2:15 p.m., and again from 2:30 p.m. until 5:15 p.m. At the end of his work day, Father found S.G. unresponsive in his vehicle; she was pronounced dead from complications of hyperthermia at 5:50 p.m.

         Mother made claims under the liability and UIM coverage of the following insurance policies (the Policies) issued by State Farm:

1. Policy Number 4891-309-40: issued to Father on February 28, 2014, insuring a 2001 Ford F150 pickup truck, and providing liability and UIM coverage of $25, 000 per person, $50, 000 per occurrence, and $25, 000 for property damage.
2. Policy Number C483241E: issued to Mother on October 30, 1998, insuring a 2013 Jeep Wrangler, and providing liability and UIM coverage of $50, 000 per person, $100, 000 per occurrence, and $25, 000 for property damage.
3. Policy Number 1003667A: issued to Grandmother on September 27, 2004, insuring a 2004 Chevrolet Impala, and providing liability and UIM coverage of $50, 000 per person, $100, 000 per occurrence, and $25, 000 for property damage.
4. Policy Number 1772085A: issued to Grandmother on June 3, 2008, insuring a 2007 Chevrolet C1500, and providing liability and UIM coverage of $50, 000 per person, $100, 000 per occurrence, and $25, 000 for property damage.

         The Policies provided coverage for "bodily injuries and property damage caused by an accident and arising out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the insured automobile, and otherwise subject to the terms of the policy."

         Procedural History

         On September 24, 2014, State Farm brought this declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that the Policies did not provide coverage for S.G.'s death, and, therefore, State Farm owed no duty to defend or indemnify Grandmother, Mother, or Father. Appellants filed a joint answer and counterclaim, asserting S.G.'s death arose from the operation, ownership, maintenance or use of vehicles covered by the Policies. Appellants also sought a declaration that the Policies provide coverage for S.G.'s death.

         The parties entered a stipulation of facts, and Appellants gave deposition testimony. The circuit court held a nonjury trial on April 7, 2015; State Farm's South Carolina Policy Form 9840a and the deposition testimonies were offered into evidence without objection. By order dated June 1, 2015, the circuit court declared that the Policies did not provide coverage in this matter. Specifically, the circuit court concluded there was no evidence Father's truck was an "active accessory" in S.G.'s death. The court further determined that even if a causal connection existed between the truck and the injury, Father's neglect was an act of independent significance severing the causal connection. The court also found the third prong of the Aytes test, the "transportation" element, was not satisfied.[3]Finally, the circuit court determined S.G. was a resident solely of Mother's home. Defendants' filed a Rule 59(e), SCRCP, motion to alter or amend; following a hearing, the circuit court denied this motion.

         Standard of Review

         "Declaratory judgment actions are neither legal nor equitable and, therefore, the standard of review depends on the nature of the underlying issues." Judy v. Martin, 381 S.C. 455, 458, 674 S.E.2d 151, 153 (2009). "When the purpose of the underlying dispute is to determine whether coverage exists under an insurance policy, the action is one at law." Crossmann Cmtys. of N.C., Inc. v. Harleysville Mut. Ins. Co., 395 S.C. 40, 46, 717 S.E.2d 589, 592 (2011). "In an action at law tried without a jury, the appellate court will not disturb the trial court's findings of fact unless there is no evidence to reasonably support them." Id. at 46-47, 717 S.E.2d at 592 (quoting Auto Owners Ins. Co. v. Newman, 385 S.C. 187, 191, 684 S.E.2d 541, 543 (2009)). "When an appeal involves stipulated or undisputed facts, an appellate court is free to review whether the trial court properly applied the law to those facts." In re Estate of Boynton, 355 S.C. 299, 301, 584 S.E.2d 154, 155 (Ct. App. 2003) (quoting WDW Props. v. City of Sumter, 342 S.C. 6, 10, 535 S.E.2d 631, 632 (2000)). "In such cases, the appellate court owes no particular deference to the trial court's legal conclusions." Id. at 301-02, 584 S.E.2d at 155 (quoting J.K. Constr., Inc. v. W. Carolina Reg'l Sewer Auth., 336 S.C. 162, 166, 519 S.E.2d 561, 563 (1999)).

         Law and Analysis

         I. The Aytes Test

         Appellants assert the circuit court erred in applying the three-pronged test of State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Aytes in determining the Policies provide no coverage. We disagree.

         In Aytes, the insured, Donna Dawson, and Randy Aytes became involved in an altercation while at the home of Aytes's mother. Id. at 32, 503 S.E.2d at 745. Aytes took Dawson's keys and forced her into her car. Id. Although Aytes was forbidden to drive Dawson's car, he drove Dawson to his mother's property with the expressed intent of killing her. Id. While standing ...


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