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Sigmund v. Progressive Northern Insurance Co.

May 31, 2005

DONALD WRIGHT SIGMUND, PLAINTIFF,
v.
PROGRESSIVE NORTHERN INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This case presents the novel question of whether a person can recover under the uninsured motorist (UM) provision of the insurance policy on his father's vehicle for injuries he sustained as a result of the explosion of bombs placed in that same vehicle by his half-brother. Defendant claims that plaintiff's suit fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because plaintiff is not entitled to uninsured motorist benefits pursuant to the terms of the insurance contract. For the reasons stated below, the Court agrees with defendant's arguments and dismisses plaintiff's complaint.

BACKGROUND

On July 12, 2002, plaintiff was given permission to operate a vehicle owned by his father, Donald W. Sigmund. (Compl. ¶¶ 7, 9.) After plaintiff entered the driver's door and attempted to operate the vehicle, it exploded as a result of two bombs placed in the vehicle by plaintiff's half-brother, Prescott Sigmund. (Compl. ¶¶ 9, 11.) As a result of the bombing of the vehicle, plaintiff sustained severe and permanent injuries. (Compl. ¶¶ 13-14.) At all times relevant to this case, the vehicle was insured by defendant for both liability and UM purposes. (Compl. ¶ 10.) Prescott Sigmund pled guilty to the bombing and does not have any type of insurance that would cover plaintiff's injuries. (Compl. ¶ 18). Plaintiff presented a claim to defendant for UM insurance coverage for the injuries sustained in the bombing, but defendant refused to pay. (Compl. ¶¶ 19-20.) Plaintiff brings this suit complaining of defendant's breach of the UM provisions of the insurance contract with his father. (Compl. ¶¶ 15-20.)

ANALYSIS

In the District of Columbia automobile insurance benefits are governed by statute, which sets certain requirements for all insurance contracts in D.C., see D.C. CODE ANN. §§ 31-2401 et seq., and by the terms of the insurance contract between the insurer and insured.

As the parties appear to agree, this case must be resolved under District of Columbia law. See Keefe Co. v. Americable Int'l, Inc., 219 F.3d 669, 669-70 (D.C. Cir. 2000). A federal court exercising diversity jurisdiction, however, is not to "make bold forays into terra incognita in order to chart the way to justice, but . . . faithfully to apply the law of the state that the courts of the jurisdiction in which we sit, the District of Columbia, would apply . . . ." Tilder v. Eli Lilly & Co., 851 F.2d 418, 424 (D.C. Cir. 1988); see also Dayton v. Peck, Stow & Wilcox Co., 739 F.2d 690, 694-95 (1st Cir. 1984) ("[W]e see no basis for even considering the pros and cons of innovative theories . . . . We must apply the law of the forum as we infer it presently to be, not as it might come to be."). If there is no D.C. law on point, "the District of Columbia courts should look to the law of Maryland for guidance . . . ."*fn1 Conesco Indus., Ltd. v. Conforti & Eisele, Inc., 627 F.2d 312, 316 (D.C. Cir. 1980); see Athridge v. Aetna Cas. & Sur. Co., 163 F. Supp. 2d 38, 45 (D.D.C. 2001).

I. Legal Standard

Defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted or, alternatively, for summary judgment. The allegations in plaintiff's complaint are presumed true and all reasonable factual inferences should be construed in plaintiff's favor. Maljack Prods., Inc. v. Motion Picture Ass'n of Am., Inc., 52 F.3d 373, 375 (D.C. Cir. 1995); Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C. Cir. 1979). In this case, the facts are undisputed and the only issue is one of contract interpretation. "[W]here [insurance] contract language is not ambiguous, summary judgment is appropriate . . . ." Byrd v. Allstate Ins. Co., 622 A.2d 691, 693 (D.C. 1993). An insurance contract is not "ambiguous merely because the parties do not agree on the interpretation of the contract provision in question." Id. at 694 (citation omitted). The question of whether an insurance contract is ambiguous is a one of law, reviewed de novo by the court. See Sacks v. Rothberg, 569 A.2d 150, 154 (D.C. 1990).

II. Uninsured Motorist (UM) Benefits

The principles governing the construction of an insurance contract can be succinctly stated. "An insurance policy is a contract between the insured and the insurer, and in construing it we must first look to the language of the contract." Cameron v. USAA Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 733 A.2d 965, 968 (D.C. 1999). "[W]here insurance contract language is not ambiguous, . . . 'a written contract duly signed and executed speaks for itself and binds the parties without the necessity of extrinsic evidence.'" Byrd, 622 A.2d at 693 (quoting Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 815 (D.C. 1983)). If the language is ambiguous, any "doubt should be resolved in favor of the insured" in a manner consistent with the reasonable expectations of the purchaser of the policy. Cameron, 733 A.2d at 968. The "first step in the construction of contracts is to determine 'what a reasonable person in the position of the parties would have thought the disputed language meant.'" Id. at 970 (quoting District of Columbia v. C.J. Langenfelder & Son, Inc., 558 A.2d 1155, 1159 (D.C. 1989)); see also Travelers Indem. Co. of Ill. v. United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, 770 A.2d 978, 985-86 (D.C. 2001). Words must be given their "common, ordinary and . . . 'popular' meaning" and the "clear meaning will be adopted whether favorable to the insured or not." Quadrangle Dev. Corp. v. Hartford Ins. Co., 645 A.2d 1074, 1075 (D.C. 1994) (quoting Unkelsbee v. Homestead Fire Ins. Co. of Baltimore, 41 A.2d 168, 170 (D.C. 1945); Medical Serv. of D.C. v. Llewellyn, 208 A.2d 734, 736 (D.C. 1965)).

The relevant provisions of the insurance contract issued to Donald W. Sigmund provide: we will pay for damages . . . which an insured person is legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle because of bodily injury or property damage:

1. sustained by an insured person;

2. caused by an accident;* ...


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