Smith v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Filing 46

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER as follows: (1) Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on the issue of Mr. Hall's negligence is GRANTED: (2) 30 Motion to Sever/Motion for Separate Trials is DENIED; and (3) the Request for Judgment as a Matter of Law on State Farm's future right to subrogation is DENIED. Signed by Honorable William Keith Watkins on 6/9/2010. (cb, )

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IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT F O R THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA NORTHERN DIVISION P H Y L L IS TALBOT SMITH, P la in tif f , v. S T A T E FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COM PA N Y , Defendant/ T h ird Party Plaintiff, v. K E L L Y TIPTON LEE, as Administrator o f the Estate of Nathan Wade Hall, T h ird Party Defendant. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) C A S E NO. 2:09-CV-617-WKW [WO] M E M O R A N D U M OPINION AND ORDER I . INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND T h is case arises out of an automobile accident involving Plaintiff Phyllis Talbot Smith a n d uninsured/underinsured motorist Nathan Wade Hall. On March 15, 2009, a vehicle d riv e n by Mr. Hall struck Ms. Smith's vehicle from behind as she waited to make a left-hand tu rn . Mr. Hall was later adjudicated guilty of driving while intoxicated on the occasion of th e collision, in violation of Alabama Code 32-5A-191. Ms. Smith now brings this action a g a i n s t her automobile insurer, Defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance C o m p a n y ("State Farm"), for uninsured motorist benefits. (Doc. # 1.) Ms. Smith claims that she is entitled to uninsured motorist benefits for all legally recoverable damages resulting f ro m Mr. Hall's negligent and/or wanton conduct. State Farm, claiming a right of s u b ro g a tio n for any payment made to Ms. Smith, filed a third-party complaint against Mr. H a ll's estate1 on August 16, 2009. (Doc. # 16.) T h is cause is before the court on Ms. Smith's motion for partial summary judgment o n the issue of Mr. Hall's negligence (Doc. # 31) and motion to sever/motion to separate the S ta te Farm's third-party subrogation claim from the uninsured motorist claim (Doc. # 30). Ms. Smith also requests that the court "enter judgment that, as a matter of law, if [Ms. Smith] re c e iv e s a verdict against State Farm on her uninsured motorist claim, State Farm is entitled to judgment in like amount and to the same extent against [Mr.] Hall on the third party s u b ro g a tio n claim." (Doc. # 32.) State Farm concedes the issue of Mr. Hall's liability, but o n ly as to his negligence (not wantonness), opposes the motion to sever/motion for separate tria ls , and opposes the request to enter judgment as a matter of law on the third-party s u b ro g a tio n claim. Upon careful consideration of counsel's arguments, the relevant law, and the record a s a whole, the court finds that the motion for partial summary judgment on the issue of Mr. H a ll's negligence is due to be granted, the motion to sever/motion for separate trials is due to be denied, and the request for judgment as a matter of law on the third-party subrogation c la im is due to be denied. 1 Mr. Hall passed away subsequent to the filing of this lawsuit from causes unrelated to the automobile accident at issue. 2 II. JURISDICTION AND VENUE S u b je c t matter jurisdiction is exercised pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 1332. The parties do n o t contest personal jurisdiction or venue, and the court finds adequate allegations in support o f both. I I I . DISCUSSION A. M o tio n for Partial Summary Judgment " S u m m a ry judgment is appropriate `if the pleadings, depositions, answers to in te rro g a to rie s , and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no g e n u in e issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a m a tte r of law.'" Greenberg v. BellSouth Telecomms., Inc., 498 F.3d 1258, 1263 (11th Cir. 2 0 0 7 ) (per curiam); Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The party moving for summary judgment "always b e a rs the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and id e n tif yin g those portions of [the record, including pleadings, discovery materials and a f f id a v its ], which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). If the movant meets its evidentiary b u rd e n , the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to establish, with evidence beyond the p le a d in g s, that a genuine issue material to each of its claims for relief exists. Clark v. Coats & Clark, Inc., 929 F.2d 604, 608 (11th Cir. 1991); Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 324; Fed. R. C iv . P. 56(e)(2). 3 Here, Ms. Smith moves for summary judgment on the sole issue of whether Mr. Hall w a s negligent in causing the accident, reserving for trial the issues of wantonness and d a m a g e s . State Farm concedes Mr. Hall's negligence. (See Doc. # 34, at 3 ("There is no d is p u te that [Ms. Smith] had slowed or was stopped, preparing to make a left hand turn, w h e n Mr. Hall's vehicle struck her from behind. State Farm, therefore, raises no objection to this Court's entry of summary judgment as to the liability portion of [Ms. Smith's] n e g lig e n c e claim.").) Accordingly, the court finds that there is no genuine issue of material f a c t as to Mr. Hall's negligence, and summary judgment on this issue is due to be granted. B. M o tio n for Separate Trials U n d e r the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a district court may order a separate trial o f a third-party claim "[f]or convenience, to avoid prejudice, or to expedite and economize." Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(b). Ms. Smith moves for a separate trial on the basis of prejudice, c la im in g that "State Farm's claim against the estate of [Mr.] Hall unnecessarily injects the is su e of sympathy for the decedent's personal representative into the case." (Doc. # 30, at 4 .) She further asserts that there is no jury issue on the claim involving Mr. Hall's estate, a n d , therefore, the estate's presence in the suit is not necessary. A s to the former point, the court is not convinced that Ms. Smith would be prejudiced b y the presence of Mr. Hall's estate in her case against State Farm. Ms. Smith contends that th e presence of the estate would improperly influence the jury, but does not explain how this is so. She simply states that "[s]ympathy for the estate is an improper consideration by the 4 jury and inclusion of the estate in the jury portion of the case would prejudice [Ms. Smith's] c a s e ." (Pl.'s Reply Br. 4 (Doc. # 39).) However, it is unclear at this point how sympathy for th e decedent would lead to bias in favor of the defendant, State Farm.2 T h e parties do not address the other bases for granting a motion for separate trials u n d e r Rule 42(b), i.e., convenience or judicial economy. Instead, they focus on the following is su e s: (1) whether Ms. Smith must bring suit against Mr. Hall's estate prior to filing suit a g a in s t State Farm (see Doc. # 30); (2) whether the tortfeasor is a "necessary party" in an a c tio n for punitive damages (see Doc. # 35); and (3) whether Ms. Smith may recover punitive d a m a g e s against State Farm (see Doc. # 40). It is clear that under Alabama law, in an action f o r uninsured motorist benefits, Ms. Smith need not bring suit against the tortfeasor prior to f ilin g suit against her insurer, see State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Griffin, 286 So. 2d 302, 3 0 6 (Ala. 1973), and that Ms. Smith may recover punitive damages from State Farm, see L a v e n d a r v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 828 F.2d 1517, 1518 (11th Cir. 1987). What is n o t clear, however, is how these issues are relevant to the Rule 42(b) motion. As the Alabama Supreme Court has held, "the power of the court to decide in one la w s u it the issues of the insurer's subrogation and liability on a policy of insurance was re c o g n iz e d long before the adoption of the Rules of Civil Procedure." Barnes v. Tarver, 360 S o . 2d 953, 956 (Ala. 1978). Accordingly, for purposes of judicial economy, and because Of course, nothing in this order precludes Ms. Smith from raising evidentiary objections, motions in limine, objections to jury instructions, etc., at the proper time, and with the proper support. 2 5 Ms. Smith has not shown that she would be prejudiced by the third-party subrogation claim, M s . Smith's motion for separate trials is due to be denied. C. S u b r o g a tio n M s . Smith further requests that the court enter a ruling that if Ms. Smith recovers a g a in s t State Farm, State Farm is entitled to subrogation from Mr. Hall's estate as a matter o f law. However, this request is premature, as the right to subrogation does not arise until th e insurer has "paid the insured [her] loss according to the contract." Aetna Ins. Co. v. H a n n , 72 So. 48, 51 (Ala. 1916). Ms. Smith acknowledges as much. (See Doc. # 30, at 4 (" S ta te Farm has no right to subrogation unless and until State Farm is found liable to [Ms. S m ith ] under the uninsured motorist coverage.").) Furthermore, Ms. Smith provides no s u p p o rt for the proposition that it is appropriate at this time, on this record for her to m o v e for (or be granted) summary judgment on State Farm's claim. For these reasons, Ms. S m ith 's request is due to be denied. IV. CONCLUSION F o r the foregoing reasons, it is ORDERED as follows: Ms. Smith's motion for partial s u m m a ry judgment on the issue of Mr. Hall's negligence (Doc. # 31) is GRANTED; Ms. S m ith 's motion to sever/motion for separate trials (Doc. # 30) is DENIED; and Ms. Smith's re q u e s t for judgment as a matter of law on State Farm's future right to subrogation (Doc. # 3 2 ) is DENIED. 6 DONE this 9th day of June, 2010. /s/ W. Keith Watkins UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 7

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