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Dustin Mehlbrech and Lindsey Mehlbrech v. Acuity

October 3, 2012

DUSTIN MEHLBRECH AND LINDSEY MEHLBRECH, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ACUITY, A MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Karen E. Schreier Chief Judge

ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

Plaintiffs, Dustin and Lindsey Mehlbrech, brought this claim for uninsured motorist benefits against Acuity, a mutual insurance company, following an accident that caused injuries to Dustin Melhbrech. Acuity moves for summary judgment, arguing that Mehlbrech is not an insured under the policy in question. Mehlbrech resists the motion. For the following reasons, Acuity's motion for summary judgment is denied.

BACKGROUND

Mehlbrech worked as a farmhand for Randall Farms. Docket 21 at 1. On December 30, 2009, Mehlbrech, in the scope of his employment, was driving a station wagon that was owned by Randall Farms and was insured by Acuity, a Wisconsin corporation. Id.; Docket 13 at 1.Mehlbrech was transporting other employees who were driving semi trucks to a bin site. Docket 24-3 at 2. During this process, Mehlbrech was following one of the semi trucks*fn1 while traveling west, and he noticed that the brakes on the truck were frozen, causing the truck to leave black marks on the road. Id. After the semi truck stopped, Mehlbrech parked the station wagon approximately 20-30 feet in front of the semi truck and turned the flashers on before exiting the vehicle. Id.; Docket 27 at 3.

After exiting the station wagon, Mehlbrech retrieved a hammer from the driver of the semi truck so that he could remove the ice from the brakes. Docket 24-3 at 2. Once the brakes were fixed, Mehlbrech came out from underneath the back wheels of the semi truck and was struck by an uninsured motorist who was traveling east.*fn2 Docket 21 at 1. Mehlbrech was severely injured and was airlifted to the Sanford Medical Center. Docket 27 at 3.

Mehlbrech is currently seeking uninsured motorist benefits from Acuity pursuant to the insurance contract entered into between Acuity and Randall Farms. The uninsured motorists coverage provision of the Acuity policy reads as follows:

We will pay all sums the insured is legally entitled to recover as compensatory damages from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle. The damages must result from bodily injury sustained by the insured caused by an accident.

Docket 23-5. The policy defines an "insured" as "[a]nyone occupying a covered auto or a temporary substitute for a covered auto." Id. Later, the policy defines "occupying" as "in, upon or getting in, on, out or off." Docket 23-6.

The parties agree that the station wagon that Mehlbrech was driving is a covered auto under the uninsured motorist provision. Docket 24-4 at 4.

Following Acuity's denial of Mehlbrech's claim under the policy, Mehlbrech brought this claim on July 19, 2011, seeking damages pursuant to the uninsured motorists coverage provision in the policy. Docket 1.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986) ("[A] party seeking summary judgment always bears the initial responsibility of . . . demonstrat[ing] the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." (internal quotations omitted)). The moving party must inform the court of the basis for its motion and also identify the portion of the record that shows that there is no genuine issue in dispute. Hartnagel v. Norman, 953 F.2d 394, 395 (8th Cir. 1992). Once the moving party has met its initial burden, the "nonmoving party may not 'rest on mere allegations or denials, but must demonstrate on the record the existence of specific facts which create a genuine issue for trial.' " Mosley v. City of Northwoods, Mo., 415 F.3d 908, 910 (8th Cir. 2005) (quoting Krenik v. Cnty. of Le Sueur, 47 F.3d 953, 957 (8th Cir. 1995)). For purposes of summary judgment, the facts, and inferences drawn from those facts, are "viewed in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986) (quoting United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962)).

Construction of a contract is a question of law that may be determined in a motion for summary judgment. 10B Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 2730.1 at 61-63 (3d ed. 1998). Thus, when the meaning of the contract is clear, "the construction of certain provisions in an insurance policy that does not require an inquiry into the parties' intentions or the consideration of outside and conflicting evidence properly may be resolved by summary judgment." Id. at 90.

Both parties relied on South Dakota law in their briefs in support of their motions for summary judgment. Because the parties do not dispute that South Dakota substantive law applies to this ...


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