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Scotchel v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia

January 13, 2020

John C. Scotchel, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, Lori Vance, Ron Moran, and Angela Cooke Defendants Below, Respondents

          Marion County CC-24-2016-C-269

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner John C. Scotchel Jr., pro se, appeals the Circuit Court of Marion County's October 19, 2018, order denying his motion to alter or amend its order granting summary judgment to respondents.[1] Respondents State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"), Lori Vance, Ron Moran, and Angela Cooke, by counsel Tiffany R. Durst and Nathaniel D. Griffith, filed a response to which petitioner submitted a reply.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioner was involved in a two-car automobile accident in Morgantown, West Virginia, on August 27, 2012, when he made a left turn in front of two lanes of oncoming traffic. The other vehicle involved in the accident was driven by Gerhard St. John, who was driving in the course and scope of his employment with Orkin, LLC ("Orkin"); that vehicle was owned by Orkin. In the resulting accident report, the officer concluded that petitioner was at fault and that there were no contributing circumstances on the part of Mr. St. John. The officer issued a warning citation to petitioner for failure to yield the right-of-way.

         Petitioner's vehicle was insured by State Farm, and State Farm paid petitioner $3, 449.07 to repair the damage to his vehicle, less his $250 deductible.[2] State Farm also paid 80% of petitioner's rental car expenses while his vehicle was being repaired. State Farm made a supplemental payment of $384 under the collision coverage for damage to a CD changer located in the trunk of petitioner's vehicle. After State Farm obtained a copy of the accident report and its representatives spoke with petitioner, Mr. St. John, an independent witness, and the investigating officer, State Farm informed petitioner that the determination had been made that petitioner was at fault for the occurrence of the accident for purposes relative to liability claims advanced against him. State Farm covered the liability claims asserted by Mr. St. John and Orkin under petitioner's liability coverage. The claims asserted by Orkin and Mr. St. John were settled in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and a release inuring to petitioner's benefit was obtained.

         On August 26, 2014, without State Farm's knowledge, petitioner sued Mr. St. John and Orkin in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County for the property damages sustained in the August 27, 2012, accident. He litigated that action for over a year, ultimately settling the same for $1, 850.

         On September 7, 2016, petitioner faxed a letter to State Farm demanding payment of an itemized list of purported damages totaling $29, 605.50 relative to the civil action against Mr. St. John and Orkin. The damages list primarily consisted of attorney's fees at a rate of $250 per hour relative to petitioner's handling of the lawsuit. In that letter, petitioner asserted that State Farm had "forced" him to sue St. John and Orkin because its investigation of the accident incorrectly determined that petitioner was at fault. He demanded the sum of $29, 605.50, less the $1, 850 he received in settlement of the lawsuit he voluntarily filed. State Farm refused that demand, stating that a "liability investigation took place and the investigation concluded that you were at fault for the accident." That letter also referenced the sums paid to petitioner and on his behalf related to the August 27, 2012, accident.

         On October 19, 2016, petitioner filed suit against State Farm; the selling agent, Lori Vance; and two claims representatives for State Farm, Ron Moran and Angela Cooke. The circuit court found that petitioner's complaint

is rather vague and difficult to decipher. However, [petitioner] has since clarified that the singular premise for his case is that State Farm's investigation wrongly determined that [petitioner] was at fault for the automobile accident of August 27, 2012, which caused the $250.00 deductible that applied to his Collision Coverage to be assessed, and he was thusly "forced" by State Farm to file a civil action against Mr. St. John and Orkin to recover the $250.00 deductible and demonstrate that he was not at fault.

         The complaint included what the circuit court characterized as "scattershot fashion" causes of action alleging breach of contract, common law bad faith, and statutory bad faith.

         Respondents filed a motion to dismiss petitioner's claims on February 21, 2017, but that motion was denied by the circuit court by order entered on April 6, 2017. During the hearing on respondents' motion, petitioner represented to the circuit court that "State Farm refused to pay [him] for [his] out-of-pocket expenses for the damages" and he "had to pay for a rental, full rental, for damages that they refused to pay." He also argued that he would lose his "no accident" driving record, resulting in increased premiums as a result of State Farm's determination that petitioner was at fault for the accident.

         Respondents then filed their motion for summary judgment on January 18, 2018, which was granted by the circuit court by order entered on April 24, 2018. In that order, the circuit court found that the facts that are material to respondents' motion are not genuinely disputed and that no further discovery was needed to clarify the application of the law that clearly mandates the entry of summary judgment in this case. Petitioner contended that because State Farm's investigation wrongly determined that he was at fault, his deductible was assessed and he was forced to file a civil action against Mr. St. John and Orkin. The circuit court found that petitioner's contention was "entirely inaccurate, baseless and meritless, factually and legally." It further concluded that petitioner failed to state a cognizable, coherent claim because the application of his collision coverage, and its $250 deductible, were not predicated upon an investigation of fault; thus, there would not have been the type of liability/fault investigation on which he premised his case. The circuit court found that "[e]ven if one were to assume purely for hypothetical purposes that an 'investigation' regarding liability/fault was somehow relevant to [petitioner's] Collision Coverage and $250.00 deductible, the undisputed reality is that [petitioner's] Collision Coverage was fully paid minus the deductible." It also noted that there is case law holding that a claim based on an allegedly unreasonable investigation would not be legally cognizable where the claim was paid as a result of the investigation alleged to have been unreasonable.

         On May 8, 2018, petitioner filed a motion to alter or amend the circuit court's summary judgment order under Rule 59(e) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that he should have been permitted additional time for discovery, that the circuit court misapplied the summary judgment standard, that new evidence existed that should be considered, that respondents did not cite West Virginia law in support of summary judgment, and that the order denying respondents' motion to dismiss was inconsistent with its order granting the motion for summary judgment. The circuit court denied petitioner's motion by order entered on October 19, 2018, largely reiterating the findings set forth in its April 24, 2018, summary judgment order. It further found that in granting summary judgment to respondents, the circuit court properly applied West Virginia law and considered all evidence in the light most favorable to petitioner and that no material facts precluded summary judgment. The circuit court also found that the purported new evidence was irrelevant and would not create a dispute of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment. That "new evidence" stemmed from State Farm's investigation of an unrelated 2018 accident involving petitioner, which caused petitioner to concede that State Farm's investigation of the subsequent accident was sufficient, while the investigation of the 2012 accident was insufficient. The circuit court also found that, in granting summary judgment to respondents, it did not misstate any evidence. The circuit court pointed out that a motion to dismiss is subject to a different ...


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