Jeffrey A. Holmstrand, Esq.
W. McGuane, Esq.
Jennifer A. Keadle, Esq. McGuane & Haranzo
McDermott & Bonenberger, PLLC Wheeling, West Virginia
Wheeling, West Virginia Attorney for the Appellee
Attorneys for the Appellant
CHIEF JUSTICE DAVIS delivered the Opinion of the Court.
JUSTICE MCGRAW dissents and reserves the right to file a dissenting opinion.
JUSTICE STARCHER concurs and reserves the right to file a concurring opinion.
2. Where the issue
on an appeal from the circuit court is clearly a question of law or involving
an interpretation of a statute, we apply a de novo standard of review.
Syllabus point 1, Chrystal R.M. v. Charlie A.L., 194 W. Va. 138,
459 S.E.2d 415 (1995).
3. A circuit court's
entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Syllabus point
1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W. Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).
4. Uninsured motorist
insurance coverage is mandatory. Syllabus point 1, in part, Miller
v. Lambert, 195 W. Va. 63, 464 S.E.2d 582 (1995).
5. An injured insured cannot collect UM benefits under his/her own policy of motor vehicle insurance where the tortfeasor driver carried motor vehicle insurance which satisfies the financial responsibility limits enumerated in W. Va. Code § 17D-4-2 (1979) (Repl. Vol. 2000), and the tortfeasor's insurer has paid such policy limits to the injured insured.
Davis, Chief Justice:
The appellant herein, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company [hereinafter referred to as State Farm], appeals from an order entered March 2, 2001, by the Circuit Court of Wetzel County. In that order, the circuit court granted summary judgment in favor of the appellee herein and plaintiff below, Jeanne Tennant, individually, and in her representative capacity as mother and next friend of her infant children, Andrea and Addie Tennant [hereinafter collectively referred to as Ms. Tennant]. The crux of the circuit court's ruling permitted Ms. Tennant to collect uninsured motorist (UM) benefits under her policy with State Farm despite the fact that she previously had recovered proceeds from the motor vehicle insurance policy insuring the defendant below, Russell A. Smallwood, Jr. [hereinafter referred to as Mr. Smallwood]. On appeal to this Court, State Farm complains that the circuit court erred by denying its motion for summary judgment, and by awarding such relief to Ms. Tennant, when Mr. Smallwood does not meet the statutory definition of an uninsured motorist so as to activate those coverage provisions in Ms. Tennant's State Farm policy. Upon a review of the parties' arguments, the record designated for appellate consideration, and the pertinent authorities, we reverse the decision of the Circuit Court of Wetzel County. Based upon her prior recovery from Mr. Smallwood's motor vehicle insurance, which insurance satisfied the financial responsibility laws of this State, (See footnote 1) we conclude that Mr. Smallwood was not an uninsured motorist. Accordingly, the uninsured motorist provisions of Ms. Tennant's State Farm policy are not applicable to this accident.
Following the accident, Ms. Tennant filed suit in
the Circuit Court of Wetzel County, on August 11, 1997, seeking recompense
for her injuries from Mr. Smallwood. Thereafter, State Auto offered to pay
its full per accident policy limits of $40,000 to compensate the occupants
of Ms. Tennant's automobile for their injuries. Ms. Tennant notified her insurer,
State Farm, of this settlement, and accepted the monies designated for her
and her children upon receiving approval of the settlement and release from
State Farm and the Circuit Court of Wetzel County.
(See footnote 5) Despite this consideration,
neither Ms. Tennant's nor her daughters' injuries were fully compensated by
the State Auto settlement. Although Ms. Tennant filed a claim for UM benefits
under her State Farm motor vehicle insurance policy, State Farm denied coverage.
(See footnote 6)
After communicating numerous such denials to Ms.
Tennant, State Farm, on March 29, 2001, moved the Wetzel County Circuit Court
to dismiss Ms. Tennant's lawsuit or, in the alternative, for summary judgment
with a declaration by the court to the effect that UM coverage is not available
to Ms. Tennant under the facts of this case. Ms. Tennant also filed a motion
for summary judgment. By order entered March 2, 2001, the circuit court granted summary judgment in Ms. Tennant's favor, finding that
she was entitled to collect UM benefits under her State Farm policy. In so
ruling, the circuit court examined the pertinent provisions of Ms. Tennant's
State Farm policy which explain the availability of UM coverage and define
uninsured motor vehicle:
The portion of the State Farm policy which addresses uninsured coverage states, in pertinent part, as follows:
We will pay damages for bodily injury and property damage an insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle. The bodily injury or property damage must be caused by accident arising out of the operation[,] maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle.
. . . .
Uninsured Motor Vehicle - means:
1. A motor vehicle, the ownership, maintenance or use of which is:
(a) not covered by cash or securities on file with the West Virginia State Treasurer;
(b) not insured or bonded for bodily injury and property damage liability at the time of the accident[;] or
(c) insured or bonded for bodily injury and property damage at the time of the accident; but
(1) these limits of liability are less than required by the West Virginia Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Law; or
(2) the insuring company:
(a) legally denies coverage;
(b) is insolvent; or
(c) has been placed in receivership; or
2. A hit and run motor vehicle whose owner or driver remains unknown and which strikes:
(a) the insured[,]
(b) the vehicle the insured is occupying, or
(c) other property of the insured and causes bodily injury to the insured or property damage.
The court then determined this definition of uninsured motor vehicle to be ambiguous as the parties dispute the term's meaning and application to Ms. Tennant's claim for such benefits. Interpreting the ambiguity in Ms. Tennant's favor, in accordance with Syllabus point 4 of National Mutual Insurance Co. v. McMahon & Sons, Inc., 177 W. Va. 734, 356 S.E.2d 488 (1987), (See footnote 7) the circuit court granted Ms. Tennant's motion for summary judgment and denied the motion of State Farm. From this decision of the circuit court, State Farm appeals to this Court.
To resolve the next query regarding the propriety
of summary judgment in the case sub judice, we look to the standard for granting such relief.
Summary judgment is proper only when there is no genuine issue as to
any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment
as a matter of law. W. Va. R. Civ. P. 56(c). Thus, [a] motion
for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is
no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not
desirable to clarify the application of the law. Syl. pt. 3, Aetna
Cas. & Sur. Co. v. Federal Ins. Co. of New York, 148 W. Va. 160,
133 S.E.2d 770 (1963). Once a circuit court has decided a motion for summary
judgment, we accord the circuit court's ruling thereon a plenary review: A
circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo.
Syl. pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W. Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).
With these standards of review to guide our decision
of the case, we proceed to evaluate the merits of the parties' arguments.
At the heart of the instant controversy is W. Va.
Code § 33-6-31(c) (1995) (Repl. Vol. 1996), which defines an uninsured
motor vehicle as
a motor vehicle as to which there is no: (i) Bodily injury liability insurance and property damage liability insurance both in the amounts specified by section two, article four, chapter seventeen-d of this code, as amended from time to time; or (ii) there is such insurance, but the insurance company writing the same denies coverage thereunder; or (iii) there is no certificate of self-insurance issued in accordance with the provisions of said section. A motor vehicle shall be deemed to be uninsured if the owner or operator thereof be unknown: Provided, That recovery under the endorsement or provisions shall be subject to the conditions hereinafter set forth.
See also W. Va. Code § 33-6-31(j) (1995) (Repl. Vol. 1996).
(See footnote 8)
Of the various ascriptions given to this term, however, none of the enumerated
conditions exist in the facts presently before us so as to render Mr. Smallwood's
car an uninsured motor vehicle.
Subsection i of W. Va. Code § 33-6-31(c) directs that a lack of insurance in the amounts specified by W. Va. Code § 17D-4-2 constitutes the state of uninsurance. W. Va. Code § 17D-4-2 (1979) (Repl. Vol. 2000), in turn, requires minimum limits of insurance in the amount of
twenty thousand dollars because of bodily injury to or death of one person in any one accident, and, subject to said limit for one person, in the amount of forty thousand dollars because of bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in any one accident, and in the amount of ten thousand dollars because of injury to or destruction of property of others in any one accident.
In the case sub judice, the parties concede that Mr. Smallwood's State Auto policy contained this requisite amount of coverage. The next construction of uninsured motor vehicle, set forth in W. Va. Code § 33-6-31(c)(ii), deems a motor vehicle to be uninsured when it is covered by a policy of insurance, but said insurer denies coverage thereunder. This construction also is inapplicable to these facts as the parties do not dispute that Mr. Smallwood's insurer, State Auto, has not denied coverage for the Tennants' loss, and, in fact, has entered a settlement whereby it has distributed the full limits of Mr. Smallwood's policy coverage to the appellees herein. (See footnote 9)
Likewise, subsection iii of W. Va. Code
§ 33-6-31(c) does not govern this proceeding as the Legislature
has deemed financial responsibility to be satisfied either by compliance with
the guidelines enumerated in W. Va. Code § 17D-4-2, and discussed
above, or by acquiring a certificate of self-insurance. See W. Va.
Code § 17D-2A-3 (1988) (Repl. Vol. 2000).
(See footnote 10) As it is not controverted
that Mr. Smallwood did, in fact, satisfy the requirements of § 17D-4-2, he was not required to
additionally be self-insured.
(See footnote 11) Finally, the last definition
of an uninsured motor vehicle provided by W. Va. Code § 33-6-31(c)
contemplates that the owner or operator [of the tortfeasor's motor vehicle]
be unknown. It goes without saying that Mr. Smallwood's identity as
the driver of the vehicle that struck Ms. Tennant's car is quite apparent
and is not in question in this case.
Having determined that Mr. Smallwood was not an uninsured
motorist in accordance with the applicable governing statute, we must then consider
whether public policy dictates a finding consonant with the circuit court's
ruling below. See, e.g., Syl. pt. 1, Smith v. State Workmen's Comp.
Comm'r, 159 W. Va. 108, 219 S.E.2d 361 (1975) (The primary object
in construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the
Legislature.); Syl. pt. 5, in part, State v. Snyder, 64 W. Va.
659, 63 S.E. 385 (1908) (A statute should be read and applied as to make
it accord with the spirit, purposes and objects of the general system of law
of which it is intended to form a part[.]). In addition to defining the
nature of an uninsured motor vehicle, the Legislature has established a firm
requirement that policies of motor vehicle insurance contain UM coverage:
Nor shall any such policy or contract [of motor vehicle insurance] be so issued or delivered unless it shall contain an endorsement or provisions undertaking to pay the insured all sums which he shall be legally entitled to recover as damages from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle, within limits which shall be no less than the requirements of section two, article four, chapter seventeen-d of this code, as amended from time to time[.]
W. Va. Code § 33-6-31(b) (1995) (Repl. Vol. 1996).
We, too, have recognized the Legislature's consideration
of UM coverage to be of the utmost importance by succinctly holding that [u]ninsured
motorist insurance coverage is mandatory. Syl. pt. 1, in part, Miller
v. Lambert, 195 W. Va. 63, 464 S.E.2d 582 (1995). Accord Deel v. Sweeney, 181 W. Va.
460, 463, 383 S.E.2d 92, 95 (1989). The primary, if not sole purpose
of mandatory uninsured motorist coverage is to protect innocent victims from
the hardships caused by negligent, financially irresponsible drivers.
Perkins v. Doe, 177 W. Va. 84, 87, 350 S.E.2d 711, 714 (1986)
(internal quotations and citation omitted) (emphasis added). Accord
Lee v. Saliga, 179 W. Va. 762, 764-65, 373 S.E.2d 345, 347-48
(1988). See also Hartwell v. Marquez, 201 W. Va. 433, 441,
498 S.E.2d 1, 9 (1997) (This state's interest in the just compensation
of its citizens for injuries received in motor vehicle accidents is evidenced
by the requirement that all insurance policies issued or delivered in this
state provide uninsured motorist coverage[.] (citations omitted)). Stated
otherwise, the purpose of our statutory requirement that insurers offer
uninsured . . . protection in motor vehicle liability policies is
to protect an injured insured when the defendant tortfeasor has . . .
no liability insurance coverage (uninsured)[.] State ex rel. Allstate
Ins. Co. v. Karl, 190 W. Va. 176, 180-81, 437 S.E.2d 749, 753-54
(1993) (citation omitted).
As our above analysis of W. Va. Code § 33-6-31(c)
demonstrates, Mr. Smallwood was neither a financially irresponsible
driver, Perkins, 177 W. Va. at 87, 350 S.E.2d at 714, nor
a tortfeasor without liability insurance coverage, Allstate, 190 W. Va.
at 181, 437 S.E.2d at 754, as evidenced by his policy of motor vehicle insurance
with State Auto containing the mandatory minimum coverages mandated by W. Va.
Code § 17D-4-2. Thus, it is apparent that, just as the governing statute
did not suggest a state of uninsurance to exist in this case, neither do the
public policy reasons underlying the Legislature's requirement of mandatory
UM coverage support a finding that Mr. Smallwood's vehicle was uninsured when
it collided with the car driven by Ms. Tennant.
(See footnote 12)
Nevertheless, in her arguments to this Court Ms.
Tennant urges us to uphold the circuit court's order awarding her UM benefits
based upon its conclusion that ambiguities in her policy of insurance with
State Farm support such a recovery. Such an interpretation of the policy language,
though, would require us to disregard the governing statutory law and the
legislative intent from which the statute was derived. It has previously been
established that this Court will not give effect to language in an insurance policy which conflicts with the intent of the uninsured . . .
motorist . . . statute[.] Cox v. Amick, 195 W. Va.
608, 613, 466 S.E.2d 459, 464 (1995) (citations omitted). Accord Syl.
pt. 2, in part, D'Annunzio v. Security-Connecticut Life Ins. Co., 186
W. Va. 39, 410 S.E.2d 275 (1991) (An insurance policy should never
be interpreted so as to create an absurd result[.]). Given that the
construction of the State Farm policy urged by Ms. Tennant would require us
to completely ignore both the letter and intent of the UM statute, we cannot
condone such an incongruous result. Therefore, we hold that an injured insured
cannot collect UM benefits under his/her own policy of motor vehicle insurance
where the tortfeasor driver carried motor vehicle insurance which satisfies
the financial responsibility limits enumerated in W. Va. Code § 17D-4-2
(1979) (Repl. Vol. 2000), and the tortfeasor's insurer has paid such policy
limits to the injured insured.
(See footnote 13) Consistent with this holding,
we reverse the contrary ruling of the Circuit Court of Wetzel County.
[t]he term proof of financial responsibility as used in
this chapter shall mean: Proof of ability to respond in damages for liability,
on account of accident occurring subsequent to the effective date of said
proof, arising out of the ownership, operation, maintenance or use of a motor
vehicle, trailer or semitrailer in the amount of twenty thousand dollars because
of bodily injury to or death of one person in any one accident, and, subject
to said limit for one person, in the amount of forty thousand dollars because
of bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in any one accident, and
in the amount of ten thousand dollars because of injury to or destruction
of property of others in any one accident.
W. Va. Code § 17D-4-2 (1979) (Repl. Vol. 2000).
[w]e are not objecting to
your allegations with regard to clear liability, nor to the severity or nature
of the injuries sustained by Jeanne Tennant, Andr[e]a Tennant, and Addie Tennant.
We are, however, advising that it would appear the Uninsured Motor Vehicle
Coverage from State Farm would not apply to this loss. . . .
State Farm reiterated this declination of UM coverage in its June 12, 2000, letter to Ms. Tennant's attorney.
[a] motor vehicle shall be deemed to be uninsured within the meaning of this section, if there has been a valid bodily injury or property damage liability policy issued upon such vehicle, but which policy is uncollectible in whole or in part, by reason of the insurance company issuing such policy upon such vehicle being insolvent or having been placed in receivership. . . .
(a) By an insurance policy delivered or issued for the delivery in this state by an insurance company authorized to issue vehicle liability and property insurance policies in this state within limits which shall be no less than the requirements of section two [§ 17D-4-2], article four, chapter seventeen-d of this code; or
(b) By any other method approved by the commissioner of the department of motor vehicles of this state as affording security equivalent to that offered by a policy of insurance, including qualification as a self-insurer under the provisions of section two [§ 17D-6-2], article six, chapter seventeen-d; or
(c) By depositing with the state treasurer such cash or other securities in the manner set forth in section sixteen [§ 17D-4-16], article four, chapter seventeen-d of this code.