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Cohen v. Becker

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

February 8, 2018

KEVIN COHEN, ET AL.
v.
ANTON BECKER, ET AL.

         SECTION: “J” (1)

          ORDER & REASONS

          CARL J. BARBIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         NATURE OF MOTION AND RELIEF REQUESTED

         Before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment filed by The Commerce Insurance Company. (Rec. Doc. 15.) Plaintiffs filed an opposition to the motion (Rec. Doc. 16) and Commerce filed a reply (Rec. Doc. 20). Having considered the motion and legal memoranda, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the motion should be DENIED.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This action derives from a motor vehicle accident in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana that resulted in the death of Susan Abrams Tiano. On January 10, 2016, Ms. Tiano was riding as a guest passenger in a vehicle owned by Payless Car Rental, Inc., and operated by Anton Becker. While approaching the intersection of Highway 45 and Leo Kerner Lafitte Parkway, Becker allegedly drove through a flashing red light and stop sign. At the same time, another vehicle operated by Don Carmadelle, Jr. was also approaching the intersection and allegedly proceeded through a flashing yellow caution light. The vehicle operated by Carmadelle impacted the passenger's side where Ms. Tiano was sitting in the vehicle operated by Becker. At the time of the incident, Becker and Carmadelle were allegedly driving at approximately 17 and 50 miles per hour, respectively. Ms. Tiano suffered severe injuries from the crash. She was transferred to a hospital where she died as a result of those injuries.

         At the time of the collision, Becker and Carmadelle carried automobile-liability insurance. Becker was issued a policy by Norfolk & Dedham Mutual Fire Insurance Company (“Norfolk”) with bodily injury liability limits of $250, 000 per person and $500, 000 per accident. Carmadelle was issued a policy by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”) with bodily injury liability limits of $15, 000 per person and $30, 000 per accident. Ms. Tiano had an Underinsured Motorist Policy (“UM Policy”) with The Commerce Insurance Company (“Commerce”) with bodily injury liability limits of $100, 000 per person and $300, 000 per accident.

         Plaintiffs, Kevin Cohen and Kimberly Cohen Fine, brought this suit individually and on behalf of their deceased mother, Ms. Tiano. Plaintiffs allege that Becker's failure to obey traffic signals and Carmadelle's excessive rate of speed through a yellow, flashing caution light resulted in and caused Ms. Tiano's fatal injuries. Plaintiffs named as Defendants, Becker, Norfolk, Carmadelle, State Farm, and Commerce. Presently before the Court is Commerce's Motion for Summary Judgment (Rec. Doc. 15) and Plaintiffs' opposition thereto (Rec. Doc. 16). Commerce has also submitted a reply to Plaintiffs' opposition. (Rec. Doc. 20.) The motion is now before the Court on the briefs and without oral argument.

         PARTIES' ARGUMENTS

         Commerce moves for summary judgment on the grounds that the UM Policy issued to Ms. Tiano is not triggered in this case. First, Commerce argues that Massachusetts law applies to the UM Policy. Under Massachusetts law, underinsured (“UM”) benefits are not available when the tortfeasor's liability limits are greater than the UM Policy limits. Commerce states that the bodily injury liability limits in the policies insuring Becker and Carmadelle - issued by Norfolk and State Farm, respectively - are not less than the UM Policy limits issued to Ms. Tiano. Therefore, Commerce contends that Becker and Carmadelle are not underinsured motorists, its policy is not triggered, and the claims against it should be dismissed as a matter of law.

         Plaintiffs oppose the motion for summary judgment. First, Plaintiffs contend that under a choice of law analysis, Louisiana law governs the UM Policy, not Massachusetts law. As such, Plaintiffs state that their damages exceed the Becker and Carmadelle's liability limits and Louisiana law allows them to recover the full extent of their damages. Second, Plaintiffs argue that even if Massachusetts law applies, Commerce's motion is premature until the liability of the parties is either admitted or judicially determined. Plaintiffs acknowledge that Becker's liability limits exceed that of Ms. Tiano's UM Policy limits, but note that Carmadelle's policy limits are far less than the subject UM Policy limits. As such, Plaintiffs maintain that until there is a determination of liability, there is a question of fact as to whether Ms. Tiano's UM Policy limits are less than the tortfeasors' liability limits in this case.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)); Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). When assessing whether a dispute as to any material fact exists, a court considers “all of the evidence in the record but refrain[s] from making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence.” Delta & Pine Land Co. v. Nationwide Agribusiness Ins. Co., 530 F.3d 395, 398-99 (5th Cir. 2008). All reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the nonmoving party, but a party cannot defeat summary judgment with conclusory allegations or unsubstantiated assertions. Little, 37 F.3d at 1075. A court ultimately must be satisfied that “a reasonable jury could not return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Delta, 530 F.3d at 399.

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the moving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party “must come forward with evidence which would ‘entitle it to a directed verdict if the evidence went uncontroverted at trial.'” Int'l Shortstop, Inc. v. Rally's, Inc., 939 F.2d 1257, 1264-65 (5th Cir. 1991). The nonmoving party can then defeat the motion by either countering with sufficient evidence of its own, or “showing that the moving party's evidence is so sheer that it may not persuade the reasonable fact-finder to return a verdict in favor of the moving party.” Id. at 1265.

         If the dispositive issue is one on which the nonmoving party will bear the burden of proof at trial, the moving party may satisfy its burden by merely pointing out that the evidence in the record is insufficient with respect to an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. See Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party, who must, by submitting or referring to evidence, set out specific facts showing that a genuine issue exists. See Id. at 324. The nonmovant may not rest upon the pleadings, but must identify specific facts that establish a genuine issue for trial. See, e.g., id. at 325; Little, 37 F.3d at 1075.

         DISCUSSION

         1. Choice of Law Analysis

         The Court must first determine whether Louisiana or Massachusetts law governs the application of the UM Policy at issue. Commerce argues that Massachusetts law applies; Plaintiffs contend that Louisiana law applies. When determining which state law governs, courts apply the choice of law principles of the forum state. See Klaxon Co. v. Stentor Elec. Mfg. Co., 313 U.S. 487, 496 (1941) (holding that in diversity cases a federal court must apply the same conflict of laws analysis that the state courts of the forum would use); La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 14. Accordingly, Louisiana's conflict of law provisions control this Court's determination of which state's law governs the UM Policy at issue.

         The Louisiana Supreme Court has established that Louisiana's UM law does not automatically apply to a UM claim under a policy issued in another state when a Louisiana resident is involved in the accident, even when the accident occurs in Louisiana. Champagne v. Ward, 2003-3211, p. 22 (La. 1/19/05); 893 So.2d 773, 786. Rather, “the appropriate starting point in a multistate case . . . is to first determine that there is a difference between Louisiana's UM law and the UM law of the foreign state, and then to conduct a choice-of-law analysis, as codified ...


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