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Government Employees Insurance Co. v. Sayre

Supreme Court of West Virginia

May 31, 2017

GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff below, Petitioner
v.
STEVE SAYRE, as Administrator of the Estate of Robert Sayre, Defendant below, Respondent

          Submitted: May 23, 2017

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County Honorable David W. Nibert Civil Action No. 10-C-144

          Don C.A. Parker, Esq. Glen A. Murphy, Esq. Spilman Thomas & Battle, PLLC Counsel for Petitioner

          George B. Morrone III, Esq. Mundy & Associates Huntington, West Virginia Carrie L. Newton, Esq. Ripley, West Virginia Counsel for Respondent

         SYLLABUS

         1. "West Virginia Code § 33-6-31 (1992) does not forbid the inclusion and application of an anti-stacking provision in an automobile insurance policy where a single insurance policy is issued by a single insurer and contains an underinsured endorsement even though the policy covers two or more vehicles. Under the terms of such a policy, the insured is not entitled to stack the coverages of the multiple vehicles and may only recover up to the policy limits set forth in the single policy endorsement." Syl. Pt. 5, Russell v. State Auto. Mut. Ins. Co., 188 W.Va. 81, 422 S.E.2d 803 (1992).

         2. An insured is not entitled to stack underinsured motorist coverage for every vehicle covered by a single policy where the insured received a multi-car premium discount and the policy contains language expressly limiting the insurer's liability regardless of the number of vehicles insured under the policy.

          LOUGHRY CHIEF JUSTICE.

         The petitioner, Government Employees Insurance Company ("GEICO"), appeals from the July 13, 2016, order of the Circuit Court of Jackson County granting summary judgment to the respondent, Steve Sayre, [1] in connection with determining the amount of underinsured motorist insurance ("UIM") that is owed by GEICO to Mr. Sayre. Finding an ambiguity in the GEICO policy language, the trial court ruled that, because there were two underinsured motorists involved in this case, the UIM coverage was triggered separately by each of those motorists. GEICO argues that the circuit court erred, both in its finding of ambiguity, and in improperly applying the policy language to require GEICO, contrary to policy limits, to pay double the amount of UIM coverage purchased by the respondent. Upon our careful review of this matter, we conclude that the circuit court erred and, accordingly, reverse.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         The decedent, Robert Keith Sayre, died from injuries sustained in a car accident on August 21, 2008, in Jackson County. At the time of the accident, the decedent was a guest passenger in a vehicle operated by Richard Ryan Smith.[2] A second vehicle was involved in the accident, which was operated by Kurtis Barnett. The accident was determined to be proximately caused by the independent negligence of both drivers of the two vehicles. There is no dispute based on the damages involved and the availability of insurance that each of the vehicles was driven by an underinsured motorist. It is further undisputed that the decedent was covered by separate automobile policies-one issued by GEICO and one by 21st Century.[3]

         GEICO filed the underlying declaratory judgment action on September 16, 2010, to resolve the issue of UIM coverage.[4] Both GEICO and Mr. Sayre filed motions for summary judgment on the issue of whether the respondent was entitled to an additional $20, 000 of UIM insurance coverage rather than the $20, 000 policy limits that GEICO had already tendered.[5] By its ruling issued on July 13, 2016, the circuit court granted summary judgment to Mr. Sayre, ordering GEICO to pay an additional $20, 000 in UIM coverage based on the existence of two underinsured motorists involved in the accident.[6] It is from this ruling that GEICO seeks relief.

         II. Standard of Review

         Our review of the circuit court's decision to grant summary judgment is de novo. See Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). As we recognized in Payne v. Weston, 195 W.Va. 502, 466 S.E.2d 161 (1995), "[t]he interpretation of an insurance contract, including the question of whether the contract is ambiguous, is a legal determination which, like the court's summary judgment, is reviewed de novo on appeal." Id. at 506-07, 466 S.E.2d at 165-66. Mindful of this governing standard, we proceed to determine whether the circuit court erred in its determination that additional UIM insurance coverage was available in this case.

         III. Discussion

         Because this case revolves around the interpretation of the UIM endorsement language, our analysis is necessarily controlled by the policy language. See Syllabus, Keffer v. Prudential Ins. Co. of America, 153 W.Va. 813, 172 S.E.2d 714 (1970) ("Where the provisions of an insurance policy contract are clear and unambiguous they are not subject to judicial construction or interpretation, but full effect will be given to the plain meaning intended."). The policy amendment providing for UIM extends coverage for "bodily injury and property damage which an insured is legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an underinsured motor vehicle." Such coverage comes into play "only after the limits of liability under any applicable liability policies or bonds have been exhausted by payment of judgments or settlements." The dispute at ...


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