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Erie Indemnity Co. v. Estate of Harris

Supreme Court of Indiana

June 19, 2018

Erie Indemnity Company, as Attorney-in-Fact for the Subscribers at Erie Insurance Exchange, Appellant (Defendant)
v.
Estate of Brian L. Harris, by Its Special Representative, Laura Harris, and Anna Marie Harris, Spouse of Brian L. Harris, Deceased, Appellees (Plaintiffs)

          Argued: February 21, 2018

          Appeal from the LaPorte Superior Court 2 No. 46D02-1511-CT-2015 The Honorable Richard R. Stalbrink, Jr., Special Judge

         On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 46A03-1606-CT-1261

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT Mark R. Smith Smith Fisher Maas Howard & Lloyd, P.C. Indianapolis, Indiana.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES Scott M. Keller Michael J. Anderson Tracey S. Schafer Anderson, Agostino & Keller, P.C. South Bend, Indiana.

          ATTORNEY FOR AMICUS CURIAE INSURANCE INSTITUTE OF INDIANA, INC. Bryan H. Babb Bose McKinney & Evans LLP Indianapolis, Indiana.

          OPINION

          Goff, Justice.

         This case arises from a tragic accident where an uninsured driver under the influence of methamphetamine struck and killed Brian Harris who was mowing his home's lawn near the roadside. Harris's estate sought uninsured motorist benefits under his employer's commercial auto policy, claiming he qualified for coverage under the policy term "others we protect." The insurance company denied the claim, finding Harris was not entitled to coverage under the policy, and the parties litigated the matter to our courthouse door.

         Ostensibly, the issue before us remains whether the policy term "others we protect" included Harris. But unpacking this broader issue reveals a narrower, threshold one—whether "others we protect" is ambiguous and amenable to judicial interpretation. Harris's estate urges that because the term "others we protect" is susceptible to multiple reasonable interpretations it represents an ambiguous term in need of judicial construction and must be construed in the estate's favor. Meanwhile, the insurance company insists that, because a separate policy section entitled OTHERS WE PROTECT explains who qualifies as "others we protect, " the term is unambiguous and impervious to judicial construction. We agree with the insurance company and, therefore, reverse the trial court's judgment.

         Factual and Procedural History

         On December 11, 1993, Erie Insurance Exchange ("Erie") issued a Pioneer Commercial Auto Policy No. Q12 1130119 F7 (the "Policy") to Formco, Inc. ("Formco"), a plastics design and manufacturing company in Elkhart County, Indiana. The Declarations Page listed Formco as the only Named Insured and no other Additional Insureds. Formco renewed the Policy every year from 1994 through 2010, each year keeping itself as the lone Named Insured. From 2005 through 2010, the Policy's "Autos Covered" section listed a 2004 Toyota pickup truck (VIN # 5TBBT44134S450733) as a scheduled vehicle. Formco owned the truck and allowed its longtime employee Brian Harris to drive it as his primary vehicle for personal and business transportation. Like prior iterations, the 2010 Policy included an Uninsured/Underinsured Motorists Coverage Endorsement—Indiana (the "UM Endorsement") that afforded coverage for bodily injury and property damage resulting from an accident with an uninsured motorist.

         In the UM Endorsement, Erie promised:

We will pay damages for bodily injury and property damage that the law entitles you or your legal representative to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle . . . . Damages must result from a motor vehicle accident arising out of the ownership or use of the uninsured motor vehicle . . . as a motor vehicle and involve . . . bodily injury to you or others we protect.

         Appellant's App. Vol. II, p. 118. Just underneath this promise followed the section entitled OTHERS WE PROTECT, which listed 4 categories of potential claimants for uninsured motorist benefits. Id. The Policy with this UM Endorsement was in effect on August 6, 2010, when tragedy befell Formco employee Brian Harris.

         On that summer evening, while operating his personal riding lawnmower at his private residence, Harris was struck and killed by an uninsured motorist. His estate (the "Estate") submitted claims for uninsured motorist bodily injury ("UMBI") and MedPay benefits under the Policy, and Erie subsequently denied those claims. The Estate sued Erie seeking, in part, a declaratory judgment entitling it to UMBI coverage benefits for the accident that killed Harris and damages up to the Policy limits.[1]

         Erie eventually moved for summary judgment, arguing, as a matter of law, the Policy did not provide UMBI coverage to the Estate for Harris's death because he did not qualify as "you, " "others we protect, " "anyone we protect, " or "persons we protect" under the Policy, including the UM Endorsement. The Estate countered with a cross-motion for summary judgment, arguing, as a matter of law, "Harris qualified as 'others we protect' under the 'OUR PROMISE' section of the UM[] Endorsement when he was struck and killed by an uninsured motorist."

         The trial court determined the case turned upon whether the phrase "others we protect" as used in the OUR PROMISE section included Harris. The court found the phrase ambiguous and construed it in the Estate's favor to include Harris. Since the court concluded there were no genuine issues of material fact, it granted summary judgment to the Estate.

         Erie appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's judgment. Erie Indem. Co. v. Estate of Harris, 80 N.E.3d 923 (Ind.Ct.App. 2017). Like the trial court below, the Court of Appeals found "others we protect" ambiguous and construed it in the Estate's favor to include Harris. Id. at 930-31. Erie then petitioned for transfer, which we granted, thereby vacating the Court of Appeals opinion. See Ind. Appellate Rule 58(A). We now reverse and remand with instructions to enter summary judgment for Erie.

         Standard of Review

         This Court reviews summary judgments de novo, applying the same standard as the trial court. SCI Propane, LLC v. Frederick, 39 N.E.3d 675, 677 (Ind. 2015). Summary judgment is appropriate only when the designated evidence shows there is no genuine issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Ind. Trial Rule 56(C). See Hughley v. State, 15 N.E.3d 1000, 1003 (Ind. 2014). Parties filing cross-motions for summary judgment neither alters this standard nor changes our analysis—"we consider each motion separately to determine whether the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." SCI Propane, LLC, 39 N.E.3d at 677. Matters involving disputed insurance policy terms present legal questions and are particularly apt for summary judgment. Wagner v. Yates, 912 N.E.2d 805, 808 (Ind. 2009).

         Discussion and Decision

         This matter involves whether Formco's commercial auto policy provides coverage for Harris's death in a motor vehicle accident involving an uninsured motorist, when Harris was not occupying a scheduled vehicle. The parties agree this case presents no genuine issue of material fact, and presents only one legal question, that is, the ...


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