Mount Vernon Fire Insurance Company v. Gabelhausen et al
ORDER denying 17 Respondents' Motion for Summary Judgment; granting 20 Petitioner's Motion for Summary Judgment. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the current trial schedule in this matter and all pending deadlines are VACATED. THIS CASE IS CLOSED. Signed by Judge Dana L. Christensen on 7/10/2017. (ASG)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
3FOR THE DISTRICT OF MONTANA
MOUNT VERNON FIRE INSURANCE
District ruDistrict C
•A· 'VT Mont Ourt
JACKL. GABELHAUSEN, JR., and the
ESTATE OF JUDITH GABELHAUSEN,
Before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. For
the reasons stated below, the Court will grant Petitioner's motion for summary
judgment (Doc. 20) and deny Respondents' motion (Doc. 17).
On March 7, 2014, Jeff Wycoff ("Wycoff') was allegedly catastrophically
injured when he fell 25 feet off the edge of an infinity swimming pool at a house
on the island of St. Thomas, in the United States Virgin Islands. The home was
owned, in part, by Respondents Jack L. Gabelhausen, Jr., and his wife, Judith
Gabelhausen 1 (collectively, "the Gabelhausens"). At the time, the Gabelhausens
were renting the St. Thomas property to a third-party for a wedding. It is disputed
as to when Jack L. Gabelhausen ("Mr. Gabelhausen") was notified of the accident.
On October 20, 2015, Wycoff filed suit against the Gabelhausens, as well as
the co-owner of the St. Thomas property, Jim Schueler ("Schueler"), in the District
Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Thomas and St. John. See Jeff Wycoff
v. Jack L. Gabelhausen et al, Case: 3:15-cv-00070-CVG-RM (D.V.I. Oct. 20,
2015). The complaint in that case alleges that the St. Thomas property was
maintained in a dangerous condition by the Gabelhausens and Schueler, and
Wycoff was injured as a result. The Court understands that discovery is ongoing
in the underlying case. In any event, the case is scheduled to proceed to trial on
January 17, 2018.
On the date of the accident, the St. Thomas property was insured by the
Gabelhausens through Guardian Insurance ("Guardian") under a "Owners',
Landlords' and Tenants' Liability Insurance" policy. (Doc. 19-8 at 1.) The
Guardian policy provides coverage for bodily injury and property damage liability,
with liability limits of $1,000,000.00 for each occurrence. Guardian was notified
Judith Gabelhausen passed away on March 9, 2014. For purposes of this Order, the
Court will collectively refer to Mr. Gabelhausen and the Estate of Judith Gabelhausen as the
within days of the accident and is tendering a defense to the Gabelhausens and
Schueler in the Wycoff lawsuit.
In addition to the Guardian policy, the Gabelhausens had also purchased an
insurance policy for personal umbrella liability coverage (the "umbrella policy")
with Petitioner Mount Vernon Fire Insurance Company ("Mount Vernon"). (Doc.
19-1.) This umbrella policy was effective from January 29, 2014, through January
29, 2015, and provided $5,000,000 in personal umbrella liability coverage. The
Gabelhausens initial application for coverage under the umbrella policy indicated
that they owned two "owner occupied" residences: a home in Corvallis, Montana,
and a second home in Polson, Montana. (Doc. 22-1 at 7.) According to Mount
Vernon, the umbrella policy was initially purchased in 2005, and from 2006 to
2010, the Gabelhausens signed multiple renewal information statements indicating
that they only owned the Corvallis and Polson residences. (Doc. 22-2.) Sometime
in late 2008 or early 2009, Mount Vernon began to phase out the use of
information statements and, instead, began sending the Gabelhausens a summary
of the umbrella policy's exposures, as forth in the policy's declarations. Thus,
according to Mount Vernon, from January 2007 to January 2014, the policy
premiums for the umbrella policy were actuarially based on the insurance
company's understanding that the Gabelhausens only owned two residences i.e.,
the homes in Corvallis and Polson.
In 2013, the Gabelhausens sold the Corvallis home. In January of 2014
Mount V emon revised the umbrella policy based upon its understanding that the
Gabelhausens now only owned one residence. It is undisputed that prior to the
2014 policy period, the Gabelhausens provided no notice that they were partial
owners of the St. Thomas property. At some point following Wycoffs March
2014 accident, Mr. Gabelhausen requested that the St. Thomas property be added
to the umbrella policy. The parties vigorously dispute: (1) the timing of when Mr.
Gabelhausen was notified about the accident; and (2) the circumstances
surrounding the addition of the St. Thomas property to the umbrella policy.
Nevertheless, effective January 22, 2015, the St. Thomas property was
added as an endorsement to the umbrella policy. On February 12, 2016, Mount
Vernon received a letter from Mr. Gabelhausen concerning Wycoffs accident and
the possible claim. Specifically, Mr. Gabelhausen sent the letter to the insurance
brokerage and underwriting firm of Bums & Wilcox, who, in tum, notified Mount
V emon. The parties dispute whether Bums & Wilcox was acting as the
Gabelhausens' wholesale insurance broker or as a soliciting agent of Mount
In light ofWycoffs accident and the subsequent civil suit, Mount Vernon
filed a petition for declaratory relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). This
petition requests rescission of the umbrella policy due to Respondents' alleged
misrepresentations concerning their ownership of the St. Thomas property. In the
alternative, Mount Vernon urges the Court to find that no coverage existed at the
time ofWycoffs accident because the Gabelhausens failed to provide notice of
their ownership interest in the property, among other arguments. Mount Vernon
now moves for summary judgment requesting judgment in its favor.
In contrast, the Gabelhausens contend that Mount Vernon has a duty to
defend and indemnify Respondents in the Wycoff litigation in the event they are
named in the suit. The Gabelhausens assert that they had a reasonable expectation
of coverage under the umbrella policy and timely notified Mount Vernon of the
loss. In the alternative, the Gabelhausens argue that Mount Vernon's duty to
defend and indemnify are non-justiciable questions, and request that the Court
dismiss or stay the matter until the Wycoff litigation has been resolved. Thus, in
their cross-motion for summary judgment, Respondents seek judgment in their
"[W[hen parties submit cross-motions for summary judgment, each motion
must be considered on its own merits." Fair Hous. Council ofRiverside County,
Inc. v. Riverside Two, 249 F.3d 1132, 1136 (9th Cir. 2001) (citation and internal
quote marks omitted); see also Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay
Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure vol lOA, § 2720, 353 (4d ed. 2016) ("The
court must rule on each party's motion on an individual and separate basis,
determining, for each side, whether a judgment may be entered in accordance with
the Rule 56 standard.").
Summary judgment is appropriate when the moving party demonstrates 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). Thus, summary judgment is
warranted when the evidence produced by the parties permits only one conclusion.
Mont. Pub. Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) v. Johnson, 361 F. Supp. 2d
1222, 1226-1227 (D. Mont. 2005) (citing Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477
U.S. 242, 251 (1986)). If the moving party shows that the evidence does not
permit a conclusion in favor of the nonmoving party, the burden shifts to the
nonmoving party. The party opposing the motion "may not rest upon the mere
allegations or denials of [its] pleading, but ... must set forth specific facts
showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The
Court looks to "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require
submission to a jury, or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a
matter of law." MontPIRG, 361 F. Supp. 2d at 1227 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at
The parties have put forth multiple argument in support of their crossmotions for summary judgment. Mount Vernon contends that: ( 1) the umbrella
policy should be rescinded based on material misrepresentations by the
Gabelhausens concerning the number of residences they owned; (2) coverage does
not exist due to Mr. Gabelhausen's failure to comply with the policy's conditions;
and (3) coverage does exist because the St. Thomas property was not listed under
the umbrella policy.
The Gabelhausens counter that Mount Vernon's duty to defend and
indemnify is a non-justiciable question and the Court should stay or dismiss this
action until the Wycoff litigation has concluded. However, should the Court find
that a justiciable question exists, the Gabelhausens argue that: (1) Mount Vernon
has a duty to defend Mr. Gabelhausen; (2) coverage exists because the
Gabelhausens had a reasonable expectation that the St. Thomas property was
covered under the umbrella policy; (3) Mount Vernon was provided timely notice
of the accident and subsequent claim and, even if Mr. Gabelhausen did not provide
timely coverage, coverage still exists because there was no prejudice to Mount
Vernon. Because the Gabelhausens' justiciability argument raises a threshold
issue concerning the Court's jurisdiction, it will be addressed first.
As discussed, the Gabelhausens urge the Court to dismiss or stay this action
because the underlying claim for coverage for Wycoffs injuries are actively being
litigated in the District Court of the Virgin Islands. The Gabelhausens argue that
because no party in that case has raised the issue of Mount Vernon's duty to
defend and indemnify under the umbrella policy, the question of whether excess
coverage is available in the Wycoff matter is not ripe for decision and therefore a
non-justiciable question. The Gabelhausens cite to Skinner v. Allstate Insurance
Company, 127 P.3d 359 (Mont. 2005), in support of their argument.
In Skinner, a carpenter was injured while working on the insureds' house.
127 P.3d at 360. The carpenter brought suit and the insureds filed a declaratory
action against their insurer to determine if coverage existed under an umbrella
insurance policy. Id. The district court found that the insurance company had a
duty to indemnify the insureds in the underlying suit in the event that they were
found liable for the carpenter's injuries. Id. at 361.
On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court reversed the district court and
remanded for further proceedings after the finding that the issue of
indemnification was speculative. Id. at 364-365. Because the issue of liability in
the underlying case was unresolved, and was inseparable for the issues presented
in the insureds' declaratory judgment action, the Montana Supreme Court
concluded that the insurance company's duty to indemnify was a non-justiciable
question and not ripe for resolution. Id. at 363.
The Gabelhausens argue that the circumstances in this case are the same as
in Skinner and urge the Court to take the same approach as the Montana Supreme
Court. Mount V emon opposes this argument and asserts that because this action
was brought pursuant to the Declaratory Judgment Act, Skinner is not necessarily
controlling. The Court agrees with Mount V emon, in part.
Mount Vernon filed its petition for relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a),
the Declaratory Judgment Act. (Docs. 1 at 2; 1-1 at 1.) This provision allows a
federal court to grant declaratory relief "[i]n a case of actual controversy within its
jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a). The United States Supreme Court has found
that because the Declaratory Judgment Act is procedural in nature, it "does not
'extend' the 'jurisdiction' of the federal courts." Medtronic, Inc. v. Mirowski Fam.
Ventures, LLC, 134 S. Ct. 843, 848 (2014) (citing Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips
Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671 (1950)); see also Aetna Life Ins. Co. of
Hartford, Conn. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 240 (1937) ("[T]he operation of the
Declaratory Judgment Act is procedural only."). Rather, cases brought pursuant to
the Act must satisfy "both constitutional and prudential concerns." Govt.
Employees Ins. Co. v. Dizol, 133 F.3d 1220, 1222 (9th Cir. 1998). Thus,
petitioners seeking declaratory relief must satisfy the "case or controversy" clause
under Article III, section 2 of the United States Constitution, as well as statutory
jurisdictional requirements. Dizol, 133 F.3d at 1222-1223 (citations omitted).
Here, the Court finds that both of these prerequisites under the Act are met.
First, the United States Court of Appeals has "consistently held that a dispute
between an insurer and its insureds over the duties imposed by an insurance
contract satisfies Article Ill's case and controversy requirement." Id. at 1222 n.2.
Second, the parties do not dispute, and the Court agrees, that diversity subject
matter jurisdiction exists in this case because the parties are diverse and the
amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. See 28 U.S.C. § 1332.
However, even though diversity jurisdiction is not in dispute, a federal court
may decline to exercise its jurisdiction under the Declaratory Judgment Act in
certain circumstances. See Snodgrass v. Provident Life and Acc. Ins. Co., 147
F.3d 1163, 1166 (9th Cir. 1998) ("Under the Declaratory Judgment Act, a district
court may decline to exercise jurisdiction over a declaratory action even though
subject matter jurisdiction is otherwise proper."); see also Wilton v. Seven Falls
Co., 515 U.S. 277, 288 (1995) ("By the Declaratory Judgment Act, Congress
sought to place a remedial arrow in the district court's quiver; it created an
opportunity, rather than a duty, to grant a new form of relief to qualifying
Specifically, when evaluating whether to exercise its jurisdiction under the
Declaratory Judgment Act, "courts should generally decline to assert jurisdiction
in insurance coverage and other declaratory relief actions presenting only issues of
state law during the pendency of parallel proceedings in state court" unless there
are "circumstances present to warrant an exception to that rule." Am. Nat. Fire
Ins. Co. v. Hungerford, 53 F.3d 1012, 1019 (9th Cir. 1995), overruled on other
grounds, Diza/, 133 F.3d at 1227 (citation and internal quote marks omitted).
Importantly, an exception to this general rule exists when a party raises
"claims that exist independent of the request for" declaratory relief. Snodgrass,
147 F.3d at 1167. This includes claims for "bad faith, breach of contract, breach
of fiduciary duty, rescission, or claims for other monetary relief." Diza/, 133 F.3d
at 1225. When these independent claims are present, the district court's obligation
to exercise its jurisdiction is "virtually unflagging." Id. at 1225 n. 6 (citing First
State Ins. Co. v. Callan Associates, Inc., 113 F.3d 161, 162 (9th Cir. 1997).
Otherwise, dismissing or "[r]emanding only the declaratory component of such an
action will frequently produce piecemeal litigation, a result which the Declaratory
Judgment Act was intended to avoid, rather than promote." Snodgrass, 147 F.3d
at 1167. Thus, "[t]he appropriate inquiry for a district court in a Declaratory
Judgment Act case is to determine whether there are claims in the case that exist
independent of any request for purely declaratory relief, that is, claims that would
continue to exist ifthe request for a declaration simply dropped from the case."
Id. at 1167-1168.
Here, in addition to its claim that no coverage exists under the umbrella
policy, Mount V emon also asks requests that the Court rescind the policy due to
the Gabelhausens' failure to inform the company about the St. Thomas property.
(Doc. 1 at 8.) Thus, even ifthe Gabelhausens were absolved of liability in the
underlying Wycoff litigation, and the issue of coverage for the accident became
moot, Mount Vernon's rescission claim would continue in this case. Further, the
Gabelhausens have brought counter-claims against Mount Vemon for breach of
contract, violations of the Montana Unfair Trade Practices Act, and estoppel.
(Doc. 4.) The existence of these claims, in addition to the claim for rescission of
the policy, compel the Court to exercise jurisdiction in this case.
Further, in addition to the fact that independent claims for relief exist in this
case, the Court stresses that two factors which typically counsel in favor of
declining to exercise jurisdiction are simply not present in the case at bar. For
one, the underlying Wycoff matter is being litigated in federal court, not state
court. Thus, because there is no pending parallel state matter pending, the issue of
deference to a state court's interpretation of state law is not at issue in this case.
Conti. Cas. Co. v. Robsac Industries, 947 F.2d 1367, 1370 (9th Cir. 1991),
overruled on other grounds by Dizol, 133 F.3d 1220 (when there are parallel state
and federal declaratory actions, there is a presumption that the federal action
should be dismissed in deference to the pending state court proceeding); see also
Chamberlain v. Allstate Ins. Co., 931F.2d1361, 1367 (9th Cir. 1991) (federal
courts should avoid unnecessary determinations of state law).
Additionally, as conceded by the parties, Mount Vernon is not a party in the
Wycoff litigation and has not been asked, at this point, to tender a defense in that
matter. Thus, rescission of the umbrella policy is not at issue in that case and the
threat of issuing duplicative or contradictory rulings is not a concern.
Chamberlain, 931 F.2d at 1367 (when faced with declaratory action pursuant to
Declaratory Judgment Act, federal court should decline jurisdiction ifhearing
petition would result in "duplicitous litigation"). Accordingly, based upon the
above factors, the Court finds that Mount Vernon's request to rescind the umbrella
policy is ripe for decision and the Court will elect to exercise its jurisdiction to
resolve the matter.
As discussed, Mount Vernon contends that the umbrella policy should be
rescinded due to the failure of the Gabelhausens to disclose their ownership
interest in the St. Thomas property. Rescission of an insurance contract is
permitted pursuant to Montana Code Annotated ("MCA")§ 33-15-403.
Steinbackv. Bankers Life and Cas. Co., 15 P.3d 872, 874 (Mont. 2000) (Montana
Supreme Court affirmed district court's ruling that insurance company was
entitled to rescind policy pursuant to MCA § 33-15-403). Subsection 403(2)
Misrepresentations, omissions, concealment of facts, and incorrect
statements do not prevent a recovery under the policy or contract
(b) material either to the acceptance of the risk or to the hazard
assumed by the insurer; or
(c) the insurer in good faith would either not have issued the
policy or contract or would not have issued a policy or contract in as
large an amount or at the same premium or rate or would not have
provided coverage with respect to the hazard resulting in the loss if
the true facts had been made known to the insurer as required either
by the application for the policy or contract or otherwise.
Mont. Code. Ann. § 33-15-403. "Thus, a misrepresentation, omission,
concealment of fact or incorrect statement will prevent recovery under an
insurance policy if one of the three factors listed in subsection (2) is present."
Schneider v. Minnesota Mut. Life Ins. Co., 806 P.2d 1032, 1035 (Mont. 1991)
Mount V emon asserts that rescission of the umbrella policy is warranted
under MCA§ 33-15-403(2)(c),2 because in good faith, it would not have issued
the umbrella policy at the same premium if the Gabelhausens would have
disclosed their ownership interest in the St. Thomas property as required by the
application for the policy and the policy itself. In support of its argument, Mount
Vernon has submitted an affidavit from Brian Hogan ("Hogan"), Vice PresidentProduct Team Personal Lines for United States Liability Insurance Group
("USLI"). (Doc. 22-2.) Mount Vernon is an underwriting company owned by
USLI. In his affidavit, Hogan affirms that the Gabelhausens did not provide
notice of the St. Thomas property until after the March 2014 accident. Thus,
according to Hogan, the policy premiums from January 2007 to January 2015 did
not take into account the Gabelhausens' ownership interest in the St. Thomas
property. Hogan further affirms that had Mount Vernon known about the St.
Thomas residence, "it would have charged [Mr.] Gabelhausen an additional
Mount Vernon also argues that it is entitled to rescind it policy under MCA§
33-15-403(2)(b). However, as discussed infra, because the Court finds that Mount Vernon is
entitled to rescission under MCA§ 33-15-403(2)(c), it will not address its arguments pertaining
to subsection (2)(b).
premium of $34 to reflect the underwriting risk of owning" the St. Thomas
property. 3 (Doc. 22-2 at 3-4.) Because it is undisputed that the Gabelhausens
bought the St. Thomas property in 2006, and did not provide notice of the home
until after the 2014 accident, Mount Vernon contends that rescission of the
umbrella policy is warranted as a result of the Gabelhausens' material
misrepresentations or omissions concerning the number of residences they owned.
The Gabelhausens offer four arguments why summary judgment is not
appropriate under MCA § 33-15-403(2)(c). First, questions of materiality and
good faith are questions of fact and must be decided by a jury. Second, the term
"residence" in the umbrella policy is ambiguous and this ambiguity prevents a
finding that the Gabelhausens misrepresented the number of residences they
owned. Third, even if the Court finds that a material misrepresentation exists, the
misrepresentation was caused by the errors of Mount Vernon's purported agents,
Burns & Wilcox, which prevents a finding of summary judgment in favor of
Petitioners. Finally, Mount Vernon was placed on "inquiry notice" of the St.
The Court acknowledges that the increase in premium, $34, is relatively insignificant in
the great scheme of things. Even assuming that an additional premium would have been charged
for every year the Gabelhausens owned the St. Thomas property, for a total of $271, this
additional amount remains insignificant, and presumably would have willingly been paid by the
Gabelhausens. However, these facts do not alter the analysis- the Gabelhausens failed to give
Mount Vernon notice of the ownership of the St. Thomas property until after the loss was
incurred in this case.
Thomas property and thus summary judgment in favor of Petitioner is precluded
under Montana law. The Court will address each argument in tum.
1. Materiality and Good Faith
As mentioned, the Gabelhausens contend that summary judgment in favor
of Mount Vernon is not appropriate under MCA§ 33-15-403(2)(c), because
factual questions remain that should be addressed by a jury. Specifically, the
Gabelhausens contend that factual questions remain as to: (1) whether the
Gabelhausens' failure to disclose the St. Thomas property was a material
misrepresentation; and (2) whether Mount Vernon, in good faith, would have
charged a higher premium for the umbrella policy had it known about the St.
Thomas property. Based on the undisputed facts, the Court disagrees with the
Gabelhausens on both points.
Under MCA§ 33-15-403(2), "[a]n omission or misrepresentation may be
material if, had the truth been known, the reasonable and prudent insurer would
not have issued the policy or would have issued it at a higher premium."
Schneider, 806 P.2d at 1035 (citation omitted). The Montana Supreme Court has
found that, in terms of materiality, the primary difference between subsections
2(b) and 2(c) "is that (2)(b) deals with an objective standard of materiality,
reasonableness, while (2)(c) refers to a subjective standard, good faith." Id. Thus,
as applied here, the Gabelhausens' failure to disclose the St. Thomas property was
a material omission if, had Mount Vernon known about the property, it would
have issued the umbrella policy at a higher premium. As mentioned, Mount
Vernon has provided undisputed evidence in the form of Hogan's affidavit that it
would have increased the Gabelhausens' premium by at least $34 if it had known
the actual number of residences owned by the Gabelhausens.
Despite this undisputed fact, the Gabelhausens contend that questions of
materiality must always go to a jury and cites to Schneider v. Minnesota Mutual
Life Insurance Company, supra, and Williams v. Union Fidelity Life Insurance
Company, 123 P.3d 213 (Mont. 2005). However, the Court finds that these cases
are distinguishable from the matter at bar and are thus not controlling to the
In Schneider, an insurance company denied life insurance coverage after
concluding the decedent incorrectly completed an insurance application.
Schneider, 806 P.2d at 1034. Specifically, the decedent answered "no" to a
question which asked if he had "been hospitalized or ... consulted a physician or
physicians for any reason," within three years of the application. Id. In actuality,
the decedent had visited a doctor numerous times in the previous year and was
ultimately diagnosed with alcoholism and depression. Based upon this perceived
material misrepresentation, the insurance company rejected coverage after
determining that, had it known about the decedent's medical history, it would have
denied coverage. The decedent's widow instituted a claim for breach of contract,
and the district court entered judgment in her favor following a bench trial. Id.
On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the district court's entry of
judgment after concluding that the insurance company failed to carry its burden at
trial that it was entitled to rescind the policy under MCA§ 33-15-403. Id. at
103 7. Importantly, as discussed by the Schneider Court and in contrast to this
case, genuine disputes of material fact existed as to whether the insurance
company would have issued the policy had it known about the decedent's full
medical history. Those issues of fact were resolved by the trial court and affirmed
by the Montana Supreme Court, which found that credible evidence supported the
district court's findings that the insurance company could not rescind because no
material misrepresentation was made by the decedent. Id. at 1035-1037.
Here, unlike the insured in Schneider, the Gabelhausens have failed to put
forth any competing evidence that Mount Vernon would not have charged a higher
premium for the umbrella policy had it known about the St. Thomas property. The
Gabelhausens suggest that Mount Vemon is speculating as whether the premium
would have gone up and cite to Hogan's deposition. However, the Gabelhausens
mischaracterize Hogan's testimony as he clearly testified that the addition of the
St. Thomas property would have warranted and resulted in an increased premium.
The Gabelhausens also cite to Williams v. Union Fidelity Life Insurance
Company in support of their argument that questions of materiality must always go
to a jury. The Court finds this authority to be equally unavailing. In Williams, an
insurance company denied coverage for a credit life insurance policy after
determining the decedent had misrepresented his health. Williams, 123 P.3d at
21 7. The application for the insurance asked if the applicant was in "good health"
and the decedent certified that he was. Id. at 217-217. However, after his death
and a claim for benefits was made, the insurance company discovered that the
underlying cause of death was "renal cell carcinoma with metastasis which had
existed for years." Id. at 217 (internal quote marks omitted). Based upon this
information, the insurance company rescinded the policy and the decedent's
widow filed suit for breach of contract. The parties filed cross-motions for
summary judgment, which the district court denied after concluding that several
genuine issues of material fact remained for trial. Id.
On appeal, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the denials of the crossmotions for summary judgment. Id. at 220. The Williams Court agreed with the
district court that issues of fact remained as to whether the decedent's signature on
the application was a misrepresentation, and, if it was, whether it was material. Id.
at 220. Important to the Court's ruling was the fact that the application did not
define "good health." Id. at 119. Thus, because the term was arguably
ambiguous, issues of fact remained as to whether the decedent misrepresented
whether he believed he was in good health. See id. at 220.
Again, unlike Schneider, here there are no genuine disputes of fact that
would preclude the entry of summary judgment. The parties do not dispute that
the Gabelhausens misrepresented the number of residences they owned, only that
this misrepresentation was material. However, as discussed above, the
misrepresentation was material if, had Mount Vernon known about the St. Thomas
property, it would have issued the policy under a higher premium. Mount Vernon
has satisfied its initial burden and put forth evidence that it would have charged a
higher premium. The burden now shifts to the Gabelhausens to dispute this fact
and they have failed to do so. Therefore, the Court disagrees with the
Gabelhausens that the issue of materiality and good faith must be resolved by a
2. Ambiguity of the Term "Residence"
The Gabelhausens also contend that rescission of the umbrella policy is
precluded because the term residence is ambiguous. When renewing coverage for
the umbrella policy, the Gabelhausens were required to execute renewal
information forms which asked if their "primary residence [had] changed" since
the previous policy had been issued. (Doc. 25-3.) This form also listed the"# of
Residences" under the policy as "2." (Id.) The Gabelhausens assert that because
the form did not define "primary residence" or "Residences," these terms are
ambiguous, and the ambiguity must be resolved in their favor.
"The interpretation of an insurance contract is a question of law." Park
Place Apartments, L.L.C. v. Farmers Union Mut. Ins. Co., 247 P.3d 236, 239
(Mont. 2010). A court is bound to interpret the terms of an insurance policy
"according to their usual, common sense meaning as viewed from the perspective
of a reasonable consumer of insurance products." Counterpoint, Inc. v. Essex Ins.
Co., 967 P.2d 393, 395 (Mont. 1998). If the language of the policy is clear and
explicit, a court may not rewrite it and must enforce the policy as written.
Counterpoint, Inc., 967 P.2d at 395. Thus, "courts will not distort contractual
language to create an ambiguity where none exists." Giacomelli v. Scottsdale Ins.
Co., 221 P.3d 666, 672 (Mont. 2009). Accordingly, a court must "read the policy
as a whole and, if possible, ... reconcile its various parts to give each one
meaning and effect." Newbury v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Ins. Co. ofBloomington,
Ill., 184 P.3d 1021, 1025 (Mont. 2008).
The Court agrees with the Gabelhausens that the policy renewal forms do
not define "residence." (See Doc. 25-3.) However, the policy itself clearly
provides a definition for "Residence," and states that:
1. A one to four family dwelling, including other structures and
grounds where you reside in a least one of the family units;
2. The unit where you reside in a condominium or cooperative
3. That part of any other building not stated in 1. or 2. where you
4. A one to four family dwelling, individual condominium or
cooperative unit you own which is rented or leased to others; or
5. Vacant land owned by the named insured.
(Doc. 19-1 at 9.) This definition clearly encompasses the St. Thomas property
under either subsections 1 or 4. Thus, a reasonable consumer of insurance, after
reading this policy in conjunction with the renewal forms, would undoubtedly
recognize that the St. Thomas property qualifies as a residence and must be listed
in order to receive coverage. Consequently, the Court finds that the term
"residence" is unambiguous.
The Court also notes this definition precludes the Gabelhausens' secondary
argument that a reasonable consumer of insurance would be confused by the term
"residence" because, under the laws of Montana, a person may only have one
residence. See First W Fed. Sav. Bank v. Lenee, 839 P.2d 1277, 1280 (Mont.
1992) (in the context of a deficiency judgment, a person may only have one
protected residence under Montana law); see also Mont. Code. Ann.§ 1-1-215
("Residence--rules for determining"). However, despite this authority, which is
inapposite to the context of insurance law, the Court finds that this interpretation
is not reasonable due to the fact that the Gabelhausens' policy allowed for more
than one residence. Indeed, from 2005 to 2014, the policy did in fact cover more
than one residence, i.e., the Polson and Corvallis homes. Thus, this argument is
not persuasive to the Court.
Finally, the Court notes that a reasonable consumer of insurance, after
reading the umbrella policy, the policy renewal forms, and a summary of the
policy's exposures, would certainly take note of the number of residences insured
under the policy. Put another way, a reasonable consumer of insurance who
believes that three residences are listed under umbrella policy would take note of
the fact that only two residences are listed. It is just as unreasonable to expect
coverage for three homes when only two are clearly listed. Thus, the Court rejects
Gabelhausens' ambiguity argument.
3. Burns & Wilcox
Next, the Gabelhausens argue that, even if this Court concludes that a
material misrepresentation exists, summary judgment is still not appropriate
because any misrepresentation made was due to the error of Mount Vernon's
purported agent, Burns & Wilcox. Specifically, the Gabelhausens contend that,
because Burns & Wilcox pre-filled the renewal information forms and presented
them to the Gabelhausens for their signatures, it was responsible for ensuring that
the forms were complete and accurate.
However, even if some agency relationship existed between Burns &
Wilcox and Mount Vernon, of which the Court is skeptical, the Gabelhausens fail
to pinpoint any error made by Burns & Wilcox, aside from the argument that the
firm should have done more to discover the existence of the St. Thomas property.
Further, as discussed above, the Gabelhausens knew the number of homes they
wanted covered, and it is only reasonable that to procure coverage for these
properties, they must notify their insurer that these properties were in existence.
The Court thus rejects this argument because there is no evidence before the Court
that the Gabelhausens disclosed the St. Thomas property to Burns & Wilcox prior
to 2014, or even indicated that such a property existed.
4. Inquiry Notice
Finally, the Gabelhausens contend that the Court should find that Mount
Vernon waived it right to rescind the umbrella policy because the company was on
"inquiry notice" of the St. Thomas property. Specifically, the Gabelhausens assert
that after the request was made to add the St. Thomas property to the umbrella
policy in January of2015, Mount Vernon should have made further inquires into
the Gabelhausens' ownership history. If Mount Vernon would have done so, the
Gabelhausens contend, the company would have discovered that the Gabelhausens
owned the property since 2006 and that a claim had been filed with Guardian. The
Court is not persuaded by this argument.
Pursuant to an "'inquiry notice' argument, an insurance policy is not
avoided if the insurer knows the facts or the falsity of the statements or has
sufficient indications that would put a prudent person on notice so as to induce
inquiry which, if done with reasonable thoroughness, would reveal the truth."
Steinback v. Bankers Life and Cas. Co., 15 P.3d 872, 874 (Mont. 2000). Here, the
material misrepresentation was made before Mount Vernon was placed on notice
of the St. Thomas property. At the time the material misrepresentation was made,
i.e., when the Gabelhausens indicated on their renewal forms that they only owed
two residences, Mount Vernon had no indication that it was not true. Indeed,
Mount Vernon only became aware of the St. Thomas property after the
misrepresentation had occurred. Thus, the timing of events in this case is
distinguishable from other cases where a court has concluded that an insurance
company was on "inquiry notice" of an insured's false statement. See e.g. Ahmann
v. Minnesota Mut. Life Ins. Co., 83 Fed. Appx. 958 (9th Cir. 2003) (unpublished)
(insurer was on inquiry notice of insured's misrepresented medical history when,
at the time the insured completed an application for the life insurance policy, the
insurer's agent knew the insured had suffered a back injury). Thus, based upon
the undisputed facts of this case, the Court rejects the Gabelhausens' inquiry
Accordingly, because the Court finds that Mount Vernon is entitled to
rescind the umbrella policy under MCA§ 33-15-403(2)(c), the Court will grant
Mount Vernon's motion for summary judgment. 4 Further, because the policy will
be rescinded, the Court will deny the Gabelhausens' cross-motion for summary
judgment which argues for coverage under the policy.
IT IS ORDERED that Petitioner Mount Vernon Fire Insurance Company's
Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 20) is GRANTED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that Respondents' Motion for Summary
In concluding that Mount Vernon is entitled to rescind the umbrella policy, the Court
notes that its holding is limited to the specific facts of this case. Importantly, the Court finds that
the Gabelhausens' misrepresentation concerning the number of residences owned was material
because they are seeking coverage for a home in which they failed to provide notice of their
ownership interest. Thus, under different circumstances, such as when an insured seeks coverage
for a home clearly listed on an insurance policy, that policy should not be rescinded merely
because the insured owns property not included under the policy, and for which no coverage is
Judgment (Doc. 17) is DENIED.
IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the current trial schedule in this matter
and all pending deadlines are VACATED.
THIS CASE IS CLOSED.
Dated this ' 0
~ay of July, 201 7.
Dana L. Christensen, Chief Judge
United States District Court
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