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Fourth Circuit Affirms District Court’s Judgment that Plaintiff was not Entitled to Stacking of Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage Pursuant to Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(A)

Ronnie Dooley v. Hartford Accident & Indemnity
United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, No. 12-1882 (4th Cir., May 16, 2013)

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

In Ronnie Dooley v. Hartford Accident & Indemnity, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit was asked to consider an issue of automobile insurance coverage in a policy issued by Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co. (Hartford). Specifically, the Fourth Circuit reviewed whether the district court erred in holding that a Hartford policy prohibited Plaintiff, Ronnie S. Dooley, the insured party, from “stacking,” or combining, the uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage (UM/UIM coverage) for each insured vehicle, when the policy failed to specify any particular amount of UM/UIM coverage afforded. Writing for the court, Circuit Judge Barbara Milano Keenan concluded that because Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(A) mandates that UM/UIM coverage “shall equal” the general liability coverage, this provision by operation of law provided Dooley an equal amount of UM/UIM coverage under the Hartford policy. Accordingly, the appellate court held that the anti-stacking provision in Dooley’s policy unambiguously prevented the stacking of UM/UIM coverage, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s award of summary judgment in favor of Hartford.

Dooley first obtained an automobile insurance policy from Hartford in 2003, and paid two (2) separate premiums for coverage of two (2) vehicles. Included in the “Declarations” section of the policy, under a heading entitled “Coverages and Limits of Liability,” were subsections listing separate entries for “Liability” and “Uninsured Motorists.” These entries provided policy limits of $100,000 per person for each covered vehicle, for both liability and UM/UIM coverage. In 2004, Dooley added a third vehicle to the policy, and continued to pay separate premiums for each vehicle for liability and UM/UIM coverage. Dooley renewed the policy annually for three (3) additional years without requesting any changes to his coverage. Dooley later renewed his policy in November 2008 (the “2008 policy”). The 2008 policy was in effect when Dooley was injured in an automobile accident while driving a vehicle insured under this policy. The accident occurred when a vehicle driven by Wilmer Phillips struck Dooley’s vehicle. As a result of the accident, Dooley sustained serious bodily injury, causing him to incur medical and related expenses that exceeded the liability coverage provided under Phillips’ automobile insurance policy. Therefore, Dooley contended that Phillips was an underinsured motorist, within the meaning of Virginia Code § 38.2-2206(B), and sought payment from Hartford based on the UM/UIM coverage provided in the 2008 policy (the UM/UIM endorsement). The declarations section of the 2008 policy did not contain any reference to an amount of UM/UIM coverage; however, this section provided general liability coverage of $100,000 per person for each covered vehicle.

The UM/UIM endorsement contained in the 2008 policy stated that “[Hartford] will pay, in accordance with Va. Code Ann. Section 38.2-2206, damages which an insured . . . is legally entitled to recover from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle or an underinsured motor vehicle.” Several paragraphs later, under the heading “Limit of Liability,” the UM/UIM endorsement addressed the maximum UM/UIM coverage available (the anti-stacking provision). The anti-stacking provision stated, in relevant part, that “[t]he limit of [ ] Liability shown in the Declarations for each person for [UM/UIM] Coverage is [Hartford’s] maximum limit of liability for all damages . . . arising out of bodily injury sustained by any one person in any one accident,” regardless of the number of" insured parties, claims made, vehicles, or premiums “shown in the Declarations.” Thus, the UM/UIM endorsement did not state the amount of UM/UIM coverage available but simply referred the reader to the declarations section of the policy, which likewise did not contain any specified amount of such coverage. Based on the anti-stacking clause, however, Hartford maintained that the policy limit for UM/UIM coverage for each person was $100,000. The parties’ disagreement, therefore, ultimately was reduced to the question whether the anti-stacking clause prevented Dooley from stacking the UM/UIM coverage of $100,000 per person provided in the policy for each of the three (3) insured vehicles.

To resolve this dispute, Dooley filed a complaint in a Virginia state court seeking a declaratory judgment. In his complaint, Dooley claimed coverage under the UM/UIM endorsement on the basis that Phillips, whose insurer paid Dooley $100,000, was an underinsured motorist. Dooley asked the state court to declare that he was entitled to stack the UM/UIM coverage provided under the 2008 policy, because the omission on the declarations page of any stated amount of UM/UIM coverage rendered the anti-stacking provision ambiguous and unenforceable. Based on this asserted ambiguity, Dooley alleged that he was entitled under Virginia law to UM/UIM coverage of $100,000 for each of the three (3) covered vehicles, for a total amount of up to $300,000. Hartford removed the case to district court, and filed a counterclaim seeking a declaration that the express language in the anti-stacking provision limited Dooley’s UM/UIM coverage to a maximum of $100,000 and that, therefore, Phillips was not an underinsured motorist. After discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court awarded judgment in favor of Hartford. Dooley v. Hartford Accident & Indem. Co., 892 F. Supp. 2d 762 (W.D. Va. 2012), and Dooley timely filed an appeal to the Fourth Circuit.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit considered established principles of Virginia law regarding the interpretation of insurance policies. When interpreting such agreements, the appellate court stated that it must determine the parties’ intent from the policy language employed. Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. v. Williams, 677 S.E.2d 302 (Va. 2009); Seals v. Erie Ins. Exch., 674 S.E.2d 860, 862 (Va. 2009). Additionally, the appellate court opined that it must construe the various provisions of an insurance policy together and, if possible, harmonize any internal conflicts to effectuate the parties’ intent. Williams, 677 S.E.2d at 302. Relying upon decisions from the Supreme Court of Virginia addressing an insured party’s ability to stack UM/UIM coverage, the appellate court also stated that “stacking of [UM/UIM] coverage will be permitted unless clear and unambiguous language exists on the face of the policy to prevent such multiple coverage.” Goodville Mut. Cas. Co. v. Borror, 275 S.E.2d 625, 627 (Va. 1981).

According to the Fourth Circuit, the anti-stacking provision in Dooley’s case established the liability for UM/UIM coverage as the amount “shown in the [d]eclarations for each person for [UM/UIM] Coverage.” Like the provisions in both Goodville and Williams, the appellate court found that the anti-stacking provision unambiguously stated that these limits for “each person” were the maximum UM/UIM coverage afforded “regardless of” the number of vehicles covered by the policy or premiums paid. The court noted that the fact that the amount of UM/UIM coverage was not separately shown in the Declarations section of the 2008 policy was not determinative; rather, the general liability limits for each person are shown in the Declarations, and these limits, by operation of Section 38.2- 2206(A), afford Dooley the same amount of both liability and UM/UIM coverage.

In concluding, the Fourth Circuit stated that these UM/UIM coverage limits, when considered along with the anti-stacking provision, mandate the conclusion that UM/UIM coverage for each of the three (3) insured vehicles could not be stacked. This conclusion was, according to the court, the only reasonable interpretation of the policy that would give effect to each of the relevant provisions. When read in its entirety, therefore, the Fourth Circuit determined that the policy unambiguously prohibited the stacking of UM/UIM coverage for each covered vehicle. For these reasons, the Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not err in concluding that the 2008 policy prohibited Dooley from stacking the UM/UIM coverage for each insured vehicle. Accordingly, the appellate court affirmed the district court’s judgment holding that Dooley was not entitled to recover from Hartford under the policy’s UM/UIM coverage.


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