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Travelers Personal Security Insurance Co. v. Johnston

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Lynchburg Division

April 11, 2017

Travelers Personal Security Insurance Company, Plaintiff,
Jayme Johnston et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Travelers Personal Security Insurance Company (“Travelers”) seeks a declaratory judgment that it is owes no duty to provide coverage Defendant Christian Riddle for claims arising from a serious accident in which Riddle was driving a friend's father's vehicle. Travelers issued a policy covering vehicles owned by Riddle's mother and stepfather (“the Johnstons”). The policy also provided coverage to relatives of the Johnstons residing in their “household, ” for accidents occurring while the relative was operating a vehicle with the owner's permission. Travelers alleges that, at the time of the accident, Riddle (age 20 at the time)[1] was not a resident of the Johnston household, and even if he was, he did not have proper permission to drive the vehicle in question. For purposes of this motion for summary judgment, Travelers concedes that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether Riddle had permission to drive the vehicle.

         The issue before the court is whether Defendants, [2] upon whom the burden of proof rests, have presented sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of material fact and to prevent Travelers from prevailing as a matter of law on whether Riddle was a member of the Johnston household on the date of the accident. Travelers has presented declarations of the Johnstons stating the Riddle moved out of their house several months before the accident and was not otherwise connected to the household at the time of the accident. In opposition to these statements, Defendants have only offered the limited declaration of Corey Gribbin, a friend of Riddle's. Riddle himself refused to contradict the Johnstons in a declaration.[3] I hold that Defendants have not carried their burden and will grant summary judgment to Travelers.

         I. Burden of Proof

         As the parties seeking coverage, Defendants have the burden of proving that Riddle was a resident of the Johnston household on the day of the Accident, and thus that insurance coverage existed. Furrow v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 237 Va. 77 (1989); SunTrust Mortg., Inc. v. AIG United Guar. Corp., 800 F.Supp.2d 722, 731 (E.D. Va. 2011), aff'd sub nom. Suntrust Mortg., Inc. v. United Guar. Residential Ins. Co. of N. Carolina, 508 F. App'x 243 (4th Cir. 2013) (“Under Virginia insurance law, the insured bears an initial burden to establish a prima facie case that coverage should be triggered.”); TRAVCO Ins. Co. v. Ward, 715 F.Supp.2d 699, 706 (E.D. Va. 2010), aff'd, 504 F. App'x 251 (4th Cir. 2013) (“Under Virginia law, ‘[i]n an action for declaratory judgment, the burden of proof is not put on the plaintiff merely because he has filed the action. Rather, the Court must examine the underlying issues to determine who bears the burden of proof.'” (quoting Rainwater Concrete Co. v. Cardinal Concrete Co., 17 Va. Cir. 325 (Va. Cir. Ct. 1989))).

         II. Statement of the Facts

         a. The Accident

         On the night of October 16, 2015, Joe Kleiner, Corey Gribbin, and Christian Riddle attended a party at a friend's house. (Riddle ¶ 4, Joe ¶ 4).[4] Joe Kleiner had driven the trio to the party in a car owned by his father, Mark Kleiner. (Mark ¶ 3, Joe ¶ 3). During the party, Joe complained that there were not enough girls present. (Gribbin ¶ 4, Riddle ¶ 4). Riddle told Joe that he knew some girls he could invite to the party, and asked to borrow Joe's car.[5] (Riddle ¶¶ 4, 5). Riddle then took Joe's car and drove to pick up the girls. (Riddle ¶ 6).

         After picking up the girls, the car driven by Riddle became involved in an accident (the Accident”) on its return trip to the party. (Riddle ¶ 7). Defendants N.M. (a minor) and Ivy Adkins were passengers in the vehicle, and Ms. Adkins died as a result of the accident.

         b. The Policy

         At the time of the accident, Jayme and Cindy Johnston (Riddle's mother and stepfather) were the named insured covered by Travelers' Automobile Insurance Policy number 994682272-203-1 (the “Policy”). (Dkt. 37-3). The Policy provided coverage to any “insured, ” which included “you” and “any family member.” (Id. at L-1). A “family member” was defined as “a person related to you by blood, marriage or adoption who is a resident of your household.” (Id. at GP-1) (emphasis added).

         The Virginia Supreme Court has interpreted the meaning of the phrase “household” in this context as follows:

Whether the term ‘household' or ‘family' is used, the term embraces a collection of persons as a single group, with one head, living together, a unit of permanent and domestic character, under one roof; a ‘collective body of persons living together within one curtilage, subsisting in common and directing their attention to a common object, the promotion of their mutual interests and social happiness.

State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co. v. Smith, 142 S.E.2d 562, 566 (Va. 1965) overruled on other grounds by State Farm v. Jones, 383 S.E.2d 734 (Va. 1989). Further, “[t]he word ‘household' . . . connotes a settled status; a more settled or permanent status is indicated by ‘resident of the same household' than would be indicated by ‘resident of the same house or apartment.'” Id. at 565-66.

         III. Motion for Summary Judgment[6]

         c. Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that a court should grant summary judgment “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” “As to materiality . . . [o]nly disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). In order to preclude summary judgment, the dispute about a material fact must be “‘genuine, ' that is, if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Id.; see also JKC Holding Co. v. Washington Sports Ventures, Inc., 264 F.3d 459, 465 (4th Cir. 2001). If, however, the evidence of a genuine issue of material fact “is merely colorable or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 250. In considering a motion for summary judgment under Rule 56, a court must view the record as a whole and draw all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. See, e.g., Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-24 (1986); Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994).

         d. Discussion

         Travelers' Policy provides coverage to an insured's “family member.” which is defined in relevant part as someone who is a “resident of [the insured's] household.” (Dkt. 37-3). The issue before the Court is whether Riddle was a resident of the Johnstons' household at the time of the Accident such that he would have been covered by the Policy for claims arising out of the Accident.

         i. Genuine Issues of Material Fact

         Travelers evidence in support of summary judgment primarily consists of a copy of the Policy and the declarations of the Johnstons. Cindy Johnston's declaration reads in relevant part:[7]

3. Christian Luke Riddle is my son. On July 4, 2015, my husband and I asked Mr. Riddle to move out of the property. He complied with that request. It is my belief that during the period between July 4, 2015 and early August 2015, Mr. Riddle spent the night at the homes of various friends and acquaintances 4. In early August 2015 Mr. Riddle Left Virginia to take a job in Minnesota. He remained at this job for a period of approximately four to six weeks before returning to Virginia.
5. Following his return to Virginia, Mr. Riddle was not permitted to move back into the property. To my knowledge, prior to the accident underlying this lawsuit Mr. Riddle was staying at a variety of places, including the homes of his girlfriend and his girlfriend's grandmother.
6. Following his return to Virginia from Minnesota, it is my recollection that Mr. Riddle spent the night at the Property only once - the night before a court date. He was permitted to spend the night at the Property on that occasion only because he did not have a valid driver's license and my husband planned to take him to his court date.
7. Mr. Riddle no longer has a bedroom at the Property.
8. Mr. Riddle has never provided any type of financial support to our family's household. He has never contributed to the payment of any utility bills or other household expenses.
9. Following his return to Virginia from Minnesota, my husband and I did not provide any type of financial support to Mr. Riddle.

         Defendants have conceded several aspects of these declarations at hearing. They do not contest that Christian Riddle moved out of the Johnston residence on July 4th, or that he moved to Minnesota to work for a period shortly thereafter.[8] Instead, they argue ...

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