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Fourth Circuit Dismisses Appeal for Lack of Jurisdiction Where District Court Assumed, Without Deciding, a Key Condition of Coverage Under Relevant Insurance Policies

Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Madison at Park West Property Owners Ass'n, Inc.
United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, No. 11–1848

by Jhanelle Graham, Law Clerk
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Madison at Park West Property Owners Ass'n, Inc., the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit dismissed, for lack of jurisdiction, the appeal of Plaintiff, Auto–Owners Insurance Company (“Auto–Owners”), which was ordered by the district court to defend and indemnify three of the defendants, Madison at Park West Property Owners Association, Inc. (the “POA”), Madison at Park West Tarragon LLC (“Tarragon”), and Northland Madison at Park West LLC (“Northland Madison”), in an ongoing state action concerning the development and maintenance of a condominium complex in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. The appellate court reasoned that it lacked jurisdiction because the district court only “assume[d], without deciding,” a key condition of coverage under the relevant Auto–Owners insurance policies. In the absence of a final decision by the district court, the Fourth Circuit was “constrained” to dismiss the appeal.

The underlying lawsuit was a class action, brought in the Court of Common Pleas for Charleston County, South Carolina, by Madison at Park West condominium owners Elizabeth O'Donnell, Mary Ann Neaton, and John Buiel, against the POA, Tarragon, Northland Madison, Northland Properties Management LLC, and Northland Investment Corporation. The condominium owners alleged in the underlying lawsuit that, inter alia, they were entitled to monetary damages for water intrusion resulting from the defective development and maintenance of the condominium complex. In its complaint, Auto–Owners’s asserted, among other theories of non-coverage, that “an “occurrence” and “property damage” may not be present as defined under the policies, where the policies provided that “[t]his insurance applies to . . . ‘property damages’ only if [the] ‘property damage’ is caused by an ‘occurrence’ . . . during the policy period.”

Auto–Owners invoked the district court’s diversity jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a), and sought a declaration, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2201(a), that three (3) commercial general liability policies issued by it to the POA did not provide liability insurance coverage in the underlying lawsuit. On October 23, 2009, Auto–Owners filed a motion for partial summary judgment, but refrained from contending that there was no covered “occurrence” or resulting “property damage”; rather, Auto–Owners pursued other non-coverage theories. When the defendants jointly opposed Auto–Owners’s summary judgment motion, Auto–Owners argued that the defendants bore the burden of proving that “property damage . . . occur[red] within the policy period,” and argued that the defendants had failed to set forth any evidence that such property damage occurred. On April 23, 2010, the district court denied Auto–Owners’s motion, as well as a cross-motion for summary judgment that had been filed by the defendants, on the ground that material facts were in genuine dispute.

On July 6, 2011, the district court ruled that Auto–Owners must defend and indemnify the POA, Tarragon, and Northland Madison in the underlying lawsuit. The court acknowledged that the defendants failed to produce evidence to support a finding that there had been an “occurrence” that caused “property damage,” but the court determined that such an issue was not properly before the court because it was never discussed in Auto–Owners’s briefing. Rather, the court found it appropriate, for the purposes of the declaratory judgment action, to “assume [ ], without deciding, that an ‘occurrence’ caused ‘property damage’ within the Policy period and that Auto–Owners could not properly deny coverage on that basis.” Auto–Owners Ins. Co. v. Madison at Park W. Prop. Owners Ass’n, Inc., No. 2:09–cv–00802 (D.S.C. July 7, 2011). The court closed the case, and Auto–Owners appealed to the Fourth Circuit. All parties agreed in subsequent briefs that the Fourth Circuit possessed appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Unsure of whether it did, in fact, have jurisdiction, the Fourth Circuit began its inquiry sua sponte.

First, the Fourth Circuit noted that “[j]urisdiction in a court of appeals is generally reserved for the ‘final decisions of the district courts of the United States.’ “Dickens v. Aetna Life Ins. Co., 677 F.3d 228, 231 (4th Cir. 2012) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1291). A final decision under § 1291 is one that “ends the litigation on the merits and leaves nothing for the court to do but execute the judgment.” Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 233 (1945). Second, the appellate court analogized the instant case to Penn–Am. Ins. Co. v. Mapp, 521 F.3d 290, 294–95 (4th Cir. 2008). Mapp involved a declaratory judgment action in which the district court decided that the insurer (Penn–America) had a duty to defend its insured in pending state litigation, but deemed it necessary to await the state court’s judgment before ruling on whether Penn–America also owed indemnification. Instead of waiting for the conclusion of the state litigation and a subsequent ruling by the district court on the indemnification question, however, Penn–America immediately appealed the court’s duty-to-defend decision. In finding that it lacked jurisdiction under § 1291 to hear Penn–America’s appeal, the Fourth Circuit clarified that removal of the case from the district court’s active dockets did not sufficiently amount to a final decision.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that, in the instant case, the issue of an “occurrence” that caused “property damage” was similar to the existence of the duty to indemnify in Mapp—that is, a live issue that was left unresolved. Accordingly, notwithstanding the district court’s purported judgment, the Fourth Circuit determined that the district court’s decision was not “final.” Rather, the Fourth Circuit noted that the district court may resolve the “occurrence” and “property damage” issue on the merits or procedural grounds, with or without a stay pending the state court’s judgment; or it may determine that the matter is nonjusticiable for lack of an Article III case or controversy. Recognizing that the district court would be free to exercise its judgment without further direction, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.


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