Floyd-Tunnell v. Shelter Mut. Ins. Co.: Wrongful Death Claims and Uninsured Motorist Coverage

Courtney Lang
58 St. Louis U. L.J. Online 37 | PDF 

Introduction

Rebecca Floyd-Tunnell and Doris Floyd (“Appellants”) filed suit against Shelter Mutual Insurance Company (“Shelter”), seeking to recover up to the uninsured motorist (“UM”) coverage limits on two insurance policies for the wrongful death of Jerry Floyd (“Decedent”).[1] The Jackson County circuit court granted summary judgment for Shelter after determining that a partial exclusion in the policies limited Shelter’s liability for UM benefits to Missouri’s statutory minimum.[2] Moreover, because Shelter had already paid the statutory minimum, Appellants’ vexatious refusal to pay claim was dismissed, as the court granted summary judgment.[3] Although Appellants claimed on appeal that either the partial exclusion was not applicable or was unenforceable because it made the policies ambiguous, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District affirmed.[4]

I. History

In October 2011, after suffering in juries in an automobile collision with Eric Krugler, Decedent, Rebecca Floyd-Tunnell’s father and Doris Floyd’s husband, passed away.[5] Krugler, the driver at fault for the collision, did not have insurance covering his liability for Floyd’s death.[6] The Chevrolet Cavalier Decedent was driving at the time of the collision was covered under an insurance policy issued by Shelter.[7] Along with the policy covering the Cavalier, Decedent and his wife Doris were the named insured on two other policies, also issued by Shelter, covering their Chevrolet Silverado and Toyota Camry.[8] All three policies provided UM coverage, stating, “If the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle is legally obligated to pay damages, we will pay the uncompensated damages; but this agreement is subject to all conditions, exclusions, and limitations of our liability, stated in this policy.”[9] In filing suit against Shelter, Appellants sought the full $100,000 UM coverage limit on each policy, totaling $300,000.[10] Because Shelter agreed that Appellants had sustained damages of at least $400,000 as a result of Decedent’s wrongful death, Shelter paid $150,000 to Appellants, including $100,000 under the Cavalier policy and $25,000 under each of the Silverado and Camry policies.[11] “Appellants argued that Shelter owed $75,000 more under each of these policies” and “asked the court for a judgment against Shelter for $150,000, plus penalties and attorney’s fees for Shelter’s vexatious refusal to pay.”[12]

In filing a motion for summary judgment, Shelter claimed that they had satisfied their obligation under the policies through paying two payments of $25,000 because the policies contained partial exclusions from UM coverage.[13] Shelter argued that the partial exclusion applied when “the insured is injured while occupying a vehicle he owns, but which is not the auto described in the policy’s declarations page.”[14] After finding that the partial exclusion—limiting Shelter’s liability to the statutory minimum—applied and was unambiguous, the circuit court granted summary judgment for Shelter and denied Appellants’ cross-motion for summary judgment.[15] Moreover, the court granted summary judgment for Shelter on the vexatious refusal to pay claim because Shelter had already paid $25,000 under each policy, satisfying the statutory minimum.[16] On review, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District rejected Appellants’ assertion that “the partial exclusion d[id] not apply or, alternatively, [was] unenforceable because it render[ed] the policies ambiguous.”[17]

II. Analysis

A.         Court’s Analysis

To determine whether the partial exclusion applied to the Silverado and Camry policies, the Floyd-Tunnell court began its analysis by reviewing to whom the term “the insured” referred in the partial exclusion.[18] Appellants claimed that the use of “the insured” in the policies referred to Decedent rather than to his wife Doris, although both were insured under the policies..[19] Specifically, Appellants noted that the policies contained a severability clause stating that: “The insurance under Coverage E [UM coverage] applies separately to each insured.”[20] The Missouri Supreme Court previously examined a similar severability clause in Baker v. DePew, and the court found the clause to mean that, “when applying the coverage to any particular insured[,] the term ‘insured’ is deemed to refer only to the insured who is claiming coverage under the policy with respect to the claim then under consideration.”[21] Appellants proposed that “the insured” in the partial exclusion referred to Doris Floyd because “a cause of action for damages for wrongful death does not belong to the decedent or the decedent’s estate.”[22] Instead, Appellants argued, the insured referred “to the class of persons authorized by Section 537.080.1, to bring such actions.”[23] The court, however, looked to the language of the insurance policy to determine who “the insured” was.[24]  The court noted that the policy defined “[d]amages” as “money owed to an insured for bodily injuries sustained by that insured,” indicating that, in the present case, the Decedent was “the insured” since he sustained the bodily injuries.[25] Additionally, the “[d]amages” provision did not suggest that money is recoverable only directly by an insured; rather, other provisions made it clear that the policies covered monies owed to others on account of the death of an insured as well.[26] Furthermore, the court noted that no reasonable person would expect the policies to be interpreted to mean that the person who actually sustains bodily injury must be the one who collects the money, so as to make it impossible to fulfill under wrongful death suits.[27] If Doris Floyd were read as the insured, then she would be entitled to recover whether or not Decedent was insured under the policies, which the court has previously held to be unreasonable.[28] Thus, given that Decedent was the relevant “insured,” the court found the application of the partial exclusion in the Shelter policies to be straightforward.[29] Therefore, the partial exclusion applied, limiting the UM coverage to the $25,000 statutory minimum, and because Shelter had already paid $25,000 for each policy, the claims were satisfied.

Additionally, the court examined whether the partial exclusion rendered the policies ambiguous and, therefore, unenforceable.[30] Appellants argued that because the declarations page of the policies provided that the UM coverage limits were $100,000 per person and provided that the statutory minimum applied to users who had general consent to use the described auto, the partial exclusion created ambiguity in the policies by taking away coverage that had already been given.[31] Moreover, the court found the policies to be clear and unambiguous because the policy immediately stated that it is subject to all “conditions, exclusions, and limitations” as well as each portion of the policy discussing UM coverage; furthermore, the partial exclusion was contained within the UM coverage section, clearly stating that Shelter’s liability limit is the statutory minimum.[32] Therefore, the court affirmed the circuit court’s grant of summary judgment for Shelter.[33]

B.         Author’s Analysis

Because the Missouri Supreme Court requires that exclusionary insurance policies be construed strictly against the drafter of the insurance policy,[34] the Floyd-Tunnell court misinterpreted the policy. This author, along with the dissent in this case, would have interpreted the case differently because the Shelter policies are contrary to Missouri’s Wrongful Death Act.[35] When a crash causes death, money is never owed to the decedent; rather, the section 537.080 statutory beneficiaries are the ones who are owed death benefits due to the pecuniary losses, which they suffered, as itemized by section 537.090.[36] The Shelter policy treats UM coverage death claims as derivative claims, but, in a death claim for UM coverage benefits, the insuring agreement must be superseded to reflect that the section 537.080 statutory beneficiaries, not the decedent, are owed the damages due to their pecuniary, not physical, losses.[37]

Furthermore, due to the severability clause in Shelter’s insurance policies, “the insured” must be Doris Floyd since she was the one asserting a claim.[38] Under Missouri’s wrongful death statute, no one would owe money to Decedent; rather, the statutorily identified wrongful death beneficiaries, such as Doris Floyd, are entitled to recovery on their own.[39] The beneficiaries’ possess this right, so their claims are not based upon Decedent’s rights in any way.[40] Additionally, Doris Floyd and the other wrongful death beneficiaries, not Decedent, incurred the “damages” as a result of her husband’s wrongful death.[41] Lastly, when the Shelter policies that discuss payment for the death of an insured are read along with the rest of the policy, they violate Missouri wrongful death claims.[42] For example, the “[d]amages” section, which states that “[d]amages means [1] money to an insured [2] for bodily injuries . . . sustained by that insured,” can never simultaneously be fulfilled by a single person with respect to a wrongful death claim because the person who actually sustains the bodily injury (the Decedent) is not the person to whom money is “owed” for the death.[43] Therefore, a plain reading of the exclusion clause reflects that the exclusion clause is not applicable to Doris Floyd’s UM coverage claim.[44] At the very least, when the UM exclusion clause is read along side other provisions in the policy, the clause could be reasonably construed in a number of ways, and since one possible reading of the exclusion would make the exclusion inapplicable, the clause becomes ambiguous and requires interpreting it against the insurer.[45]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Missouri Court of Appeals Western District affirmed the decision of the Jackson County circuit court, finding the partial exclusion in both policies limited Shelter’s liability for UM benefits to Missouri’s statutory minimum.[46] The dissent disagreed, however, finding that the exclusionary clause either did not apply to Doris Floyd’s UM coverage claim or, if it did, was ambiguous when read in the context of the whole policy.[47] This author would agree with the dissent due to the Missouri Wrongful Death statute, allowing statutory beneficiaries’ to recover since they are the ones who incurred the damages of the wrongful death.

Courtney Lang*



[1] Floyd-Tunnell v. Shelter Mut. Ins. Co., No. WD75725, 2013 WL 5978452, at *1 (Mo. Ct. App. Nov. 12, 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452, at *1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452, at *1.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id. at *2. The Partial Exclusion clause reads: “In claims involving the situations listed below, our limit of liability under Coverage E [UM coverage] is the minimum dollar amount required by the uninsured motorist insurance law and financial responsibility law of the state of Missouri: . . . (3) If any part of the damages are sustained while the insured is occupying a motor vehicle owned by any insured, the spouse of any insured, or a resident of any insured’s household; unless it is the described auto.” Id.

[15] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *1.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at *3.

[19] Id.

[20] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *4

[21] Id. (quoting Baker v. DePew, 860 S.W.2d 318, 320 (Mo. banc 1993)).

[22] Id. at *4.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *4.

[26] Id. at *5

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at *5–6. “While uninsured motorist coverage is to be given a liberal interpretation, coverage should not be created where there is none.” Id. at *6.

[29] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *6. “Although Appellants may not themselves have been riding in the vehicle at the time of the fatal accident, it is undeniable that some ‘part of the damages’ for which Appellants seek to recover were ‘sustained while the insured [i.e., [sic] Jerry Floyd] [was] occupying a motor vehicle [he] owned,’ but which was not the ‘described auto’ under either the Silverado or Camry policies. Id.

[30] Id. at *7.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *7.

[34] Id. at *8 (Pfeiffer, J. dissenting).

[35] Id. at *8, *11.

[36] Id. at *11–12.

[37] Id.

[38] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *13 (Pfeiffer, J. dissenting).

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] Id. at *14

[42] Id. at *11–12. “For example, the definition of ‘damages’ upon which Shelter relies cannot be read to unambiguously require that Jerry Floyd [Decedent] be treated as the ‘insured’ for purposes of [his] claim.” Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *11–12 (Pfeiffer, J. dissenting).

[43] Id. at *14 (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis omitted). Other automobile liability insurance policies issued in Missouri have avoided the interpretive difficulties presented by Shelter’s policies, by defining the “insured” to include any person entitled to recover compensatory damages as a result of bodily injury to an insured, and by specifying that bodily injury must be sustained by “an insured,” rather than (as in the Shelter policies) that bodily injury must be sustained by the same person to whom money is owed. Id. at *15.

[44] Id.

[45] Id. at *15.

[46] Floyd-Tunnell, 2013 WL 5978452 at *7–8 (majority opinion).

[47] Id. at *15 (Pfeiffer, J. dissenting).

* J.D. Candidate, 2015, Student at Saint Louis University School of Law. First, I would like to thank God for leading me and guiding me in everything I do. I would also like to thank Professor Sanner for her valuable insight on this topic. Lastly, I would like to thank my family and friends who have supported me on every step of my journey.