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Lloyd's Syndicate 1861 v. Darwin National Assurance Co.

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fifth Circuit

May 23, 2018

LLOYD'S SYNDICATE 1861
v.
DARWIN NATIONAL ASSURANCE COMPANY

          ON APPEAL FROM THE TWENTY-FOURTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF JEFFERSON, STATE OF LOUISIANA NO. 769-957, DIVISION "F" HONORABLE MICHAEL P. MENTZ, JUDGE PRESIDING

          COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLANT, LLOYD'S SYNDICATE 1861 Harry E. Morse

          COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLEE, DARWIN NATIONAL ASSURANCE COMPANY Judy Y. Barrasso, Michael A. Balascio, Chloe M. Chetta.

          Panel composed of Judges Marc E. Johnson, Robert A. Chaisson, and Stephen J. Windhorst

          ROBERT A. CHAISSON, JUDGE.

         In this insurance coverage dispute arising out of a multiple-impact automobile collision resulting in multiple injured victims, Lloyd's Syndicate 1861 ("Lloyd's") appeals a June 27, 2017 judgment of the trial court denying its motion for summary judgment and granting a cross-motion for summary judgment filed by Darwin National Assurance Company ("Darwin"). For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         FACTS & PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On the morning of September 10, 2013, Mr. James Hyde, Jr., was driving his pickup truck approximately 70 miles per hour in the right lane of the elevated U.S. 90B West Bank Expressway. As he approached the Barataria Boulevard exit, Mr. Hyde rear-ended a pickup truck driven by Mrs. Shannon Riggio, striking the rear of her vehicle several times over a distance of approximately four-tenths of a mile. Mr. Todd Riggio was a passenger in that vehicle. The several impacts from Mr. Hyde's vehicle caused the Riggio vehicle to spin across several travel lanes and strike the center bridge rail. Mr. Hyde alleges that at the time of this initial impact he was knocked unconscious by the deployment of his airbag and does not remember anything else from that point on about the collision until being removed from his vehicle by emergency medical technicians.

         Mr. Hyde's vehicle continued to travel forward at about 60 to 70 miles per hour in the right lane of the elevated expressway. Approximately two-tenths of a mile from his last impact with the Riggio vehicle, as he approached the entrance to the Barataria Boulevard right-exit down ramp, Mr. Hyde's vehicle struck the right side of a minivan driven by Ms. Carol Patai, before proceeding to the right, down the ramp towards Barataria Boulevard. Mr. Hyde's vehicle struck the down ramp retaining walls at least twice while traveling down the ramp. After exiting the ramp, Mr. Hyde's vehicle crossed four traffic lanes on the ground-level expressway service road and struck the rear corner of an SUV driven by Ms. Tresia Bonds that was stopped in the far right lane of the service road at the Avenue D traffic light.[1]

         Next, Mr. Hyde's vehicle, while still traveling approximately 60 miles per hour, crossed the northbound lanes of Avenue D and the median, struck a SUV driven by Ms. Kimberly Knoten in the left southbound lane of Avenue D, and finally came to a stop. Tyrone Vicks, Jr., an eight-year-old child who was a passenger in Ms. Knoten's vehicle, was seriously injured in this last collision.

         According to the police reports, the total distance traveled by Mr. Hyde's vehicle from its initial impact with the Riggio vehicle to the final impact with the Knoten vehicle was approximately nine-tenths of a mile.[2] Attached to the third police report was a written statement of Ms. Angela Aubrey, a witness to all four impacts, who indicated that throughout the incident Mr. Hyde's vehicle was traveling at a high rate of speed. Ms. Aubrey did not indicate that Mr. Hyde's vehicle slowed or came to a stop at any time during this incident until after it struck Ms. Knoten's vehicle.

         On the day of this incident, there were three separate insurance policies in effect that provided coverage to Mr. Hyde: a personal automobile insurance policy issued to Mr. Hyde by Geico Casualty Insurance Company ("Geico"); a marine general liability policy issued by Darwin to Mr. Hyde's employer, B & D Contracting, Inc.; and an excess policy issued by Lloyd's to B & D Contracting, Inc. The Riggios, Ms. Knoten, and Tyrone Vicks, Sr. (on behalf of his son, Tyrone, Jr.) filed suit against Mr. Hyde, his employer, B & D Contracting, Inc., and their insurers, in the 24th Judicial District Court. That lawsuit settled before trial for an amount well in excess of $1, 000, 000. At the time of that settlement, Darwin paid $1, 000, 000 to some of the plaintiffs, and Lloyd's, as the excess insurer, paid additional funds to the other plaintiffs for the relinquishment of those plaintiffs' claims.[3]

         On March 15, 2017, Lloyd's filed a petition for damages against Darwin seeking to recover funds it paid in settlement of the Vicks lawsuit, contending that Darwin was responsible for the payment of those amounts under the terms of its insurance policy. Subsequent to Darwin answering the petition, both Lloyd's and Darwin filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the issue of the amount of coverage provided by the Darwin policy. The parties did not dispute that the Darwin policy provided a $1, 000, 000 per occurrence limit, and a $2, 000, 000 aggregate limit for any one policy period. The parties disagreed, however, as to whether this incident was one occurrence, as that term was defined in the Darwin policy, thus triggering the $1, 000, 000 per occurrence limit, or whether it was multiple occurrences, thus triggering the $2, 000, 000 aggregate limit.

         In its motion for summary judgment, Lloyd's, in arguing that Mr. Hyde's incident was more than one occurrence and that Darwin was therefore responsible for its $2, 000, 000 aggregate limit, contended that "Louisiana case law holds that when accidents are separated by time and space, there are multiple accidents and multiple occurrences." To the contrary, Darwin, in its motion for summary judgment, in arguing that Mr. Hyde's incident was one occurrence for which it was only responsible for its $1, 000, 000 per occurrence limit, contended that "a multi-impact accident is a single 'occurrence' when the collisions are an unbroken chain of events and the driver does not regain control of the vehicle."[4]

         Following a hearing on the cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court denied Lloyd's motion for summary judgment and granted Darwin's motion for summary judgment, thereby dismissing Lloyd's petition with prejudice, with each party to bear its own costs. In ruling from the bench, the trial court specifically found that although there were three collisions that day, there was one continuous series of events emanating from the original collision and that the collisions constituted one occurrence under the Darwin policy. It is from this judgment that Lloyd's takes its timely appeal.

         In its sole assignment of error, Lloyd's argues that the trial court committed legal error in holding that a vehicle involved in three separate collisions had only one occurrence within the meaning of the Darwin insurance policy. Lloyd's argues that Mr. Hyde's collisions were separated by "significant" time and space, and therefore should be considered separate accidents under the policy language and in accordance with Louisiana case law. In opposition to Lloyd's position, Darwin argues that the language of the insurance policy that provides coverage for each "occurrence" covers multiple-impact car collisions in situations like this where the impacts are continuous and the at-fault driver never regains control.

         DISCUSSION

         Appellate courts apply a de novo standard of review in considering lower court rulings on summary judgment motions. Arceneaux v. Amstar Corp., 15-0588 (La. 9/7/16), 200 So.3d 277, 281. Thus, we use the same criteria that govern the district court's consideration of whether summary judgment is appropriate. A motion for summary judgment shall be granted if the motion, memorandum, and supporting documents show that there is no genuine issue as to material fact and that mover is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. La. C.C.P. art. 966(A)(3). Interpretation of an insurance policy is usually a legal question that can be properly resolved by means of a motion for summary judgment. Washington v. McCauley, 45, 916 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2/16/11), 62 So.3d 173, 177.

         An insurance policy is a contract between the parties and should be construed using the general rules of interpretation set forth in the Civil Code. Louisiana Ins. Guar. Ass'n v. Interstate Fire & Cas. Co., 93-0911 (La. 1/14/94), 630 So.2d 759, 763. The judicial responsibility in interpreting insurance contracts is to determine the parties' common intent. Id. The parties' intent, as reflected by the words in the policy, determines the extent of coverage. Id. Such intent is to be determined in accordance with the general, ordinary, plain and popular meaning of the words used in the policy, unless the words have acquired a technical meaning. La. C.C. art. 2047. An insurance policy should not be interpreted in an unreasonable or strained manner so as to enlarge or to restrict its provisions beyond what is reasonably contemplated by its terms or so as to achieve an absurd conclusion. Louisiana Ins., 630 So.2d at 763.

         The Darwin policy defines "occurrence" to mean "an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure in conditions, which results in bodily injury or property damage neither expected nor intended from the standpoint of the insured." In its appellate brief, Darwin maintains that, because Lloyd's brief fails to discuss the phrase "including continuous or repeated exposure in conditions" in its analysis of this case, Lloyd's asks this Court "to ignore the policy's definition of 'occurrence' and to ignore Louisiana jurisprudence by defining 'occurrence' to mean only 'an accident, ' without more." Darwin suggests that because this phrase in the policy further qualifies the term "accident" beyond the ordinary or popular sense of that word when used on its own, thus narrowing the scope of coverage, this Court should employ an expanded definition of accident in this case. Regarding the applicability of the phrase, Darwin argues that "Hyde's continuous state of unconsciousness and lack of control of his vehicle - ...


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