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Bryant v. State Farm Fire And Casualty Co.

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

May 23, 2017

IRENE S. BRYANT, et al., Plaintiffs,


          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Chief United States District Judge

         In this insurance coverage dispute, Irene S. Bryant ("Bryant") seeks a declaratory judgment that a homeowner's insurance policy issued by State Farm Fire and Casualty Company ("State Farm") covers both Norman E. Barker and Norman P. Barker for any liability arising from a personal injury action that Bryant filed against the Barkers in Virginia state court. The case is presently before the court on cross-motions for summary judgment filed by Bryant and State Farm. For the reasons set forth below, Bryant's motion will be denied and State Farm's motion will be granted.


         Norman E. Barker ("Norman Barker" or "Norman") lives with his wife at 750 Estates Road, Roanoke, Virginia. Dec. of Norman E. Barker, Docket No. 25-1. He has lived at that location for the last twenty years. Id. No one has resided with him and his wife for the past seven years. Id. Previously, Norman Barker and his wife lived at 3317 Ventnor Road, Roanoke, Virginia. However, since their move twenty years ago, they have not owned any personal property which is kept inside the house located at 3317 Ventnor Road. They do keep an RV at 3317 Ventnor Road, which is parked outside the fence that surrounds the house. Dep. of Norman E. Barker 11, Docket No. 11-2. The distance between the 3317 Ventnor Road house and the 750 Estates Road house is approximately 1.3 miles. Dec. of Norman E. Barker, Docket No. 25-1.

         Norman P. Barker ("Preston Barker" or "Preston") is Norman Barker's son. Preston lives at 3317 Ventnor Road with his son, Norman's grandson. The property is still owned by Norman, but Norman does not collect rent from Preston. Preston has lived at 3317 Ventnor Road for his entire life. Dep. of Norman E. Barker 20, Docket No. 11-2. Preston Barker pays the utilities and performs any repairs to the 3317 Ventnor Road house. Dep. of Norman E. Barker 20-21. Norman rarely visits Preston at 3317 Ventnor Road. Dec. of Norman E. Barker, Docket No. 25-1. However, Norman goes to the 3317 Ventnor Road property approximately once a month to work on the RV. Dep. of Norman E. Barker 12, Docket No. 11-2. Preston's son also visits Norman at 750 Estates Road approximately once a month. Id. at 9.

         Bryant alleges that, on the evening of September 9, 2014, she was walking in her neighborhood and approached the house at 3317 Ventnor Road, where Preston Barker's son was struggling to control a pit bull. See State Court Compl. ¶ 1-2, Docket 1-3. The pit bull ran to Bryant, jumped on her, and caused significant injuries. Id. On September 16, 2015, Bryant initiated a state-court tort suit against Norman and Preston Barker arising out of that incident.

         The declarations of Norman and Preston Barker suggest that Norman has never acted as a custodian of the pit bull, Hercules, nor has he ever provided any care for Hercules.[1] Preston Barker further declared that Norman has never been in the house at 3317 Ventnor Road when Hercules was in the house. Dec. of Norman P. Barker, Docket No. 25-3. At the time of the accident, neither Norman nor Preston Barker considered Preston to be a resident of Norman's household. Id; Dec. of Norman E. Barker, Docket No. 25-1.

         At all times relevant, Norman Barker maintained a homeowner's insurance policy with State Farm (the "Policy"). The Policy defines "insured" as "you, " meaning the named insured, "and, if residents of your household, your relatives and any other person under the age of 21 who is in the care of a person described above." "Insured" also means, "with respect to animals . . . the person or organization legally responsible for them. However, the animal. . . must be owned by you or a person included [in the definition of 'insured'.]" State Farm Homeowner's Policy 1, Docket No. 25-4. Norman Barker and his wife are the "named insureds" on the Policy. See id

         In addition to the tort suit, Bryant filed the instant declaratory action against Norman Barker, Preston Barker, and State Farm in state court. The declaratory action seeks a determination that Norman Barker is the legal owner of the pit bull by operation of Roanoke City Ordinance § 6-22, [2] that the Policy covers both Norman Barker and Preston Barker, and that, pursuant to the Policy, State Farm must indemnify Preston Barker for any judgment against him in the underlying state-court tort suit. State Farm removed to this court, and on December 21, 2016, the court granted the parties' joint motion to realign. See Docket No. 19. Accordingly, the court possesses jurisdiction to hear the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. The parties have filed cross motions for summary judgment, and the court understands that the only issues in dispute are whether the Policy gives rise to a duty to indemnify Preston Barker and whether Norman Barker is an owner of the pit bull. These issues have been fully heard and are ripe for review.

         Standard of Review

         Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). For a party's evidence to raise a genuine issue of material fact, it must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). When deciding whether to grant a motion for summary judgment, the court must view the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in his favor. Id. at 255; see also Terry's Floor Fashions, Inc. v. Burlington Indus., Inc., 763 F.2d 604, 610 (4th Cir. 1985).

         "In a declaratory judgment action, an insurance carrier may appropriately move for summary judgment to determine whether it is obligated to provide coverage to an insured, where . . . there are no material ambiguities in the policy." St. Paul Reinsurance Co. Ltd. v. Ollie's Seafood Grille and Bar, LLC, 242 F.R.D. 348, 352 (D.S.C. 2007) (citing Highlands Ins. Co. v. Gerber Prods. Co., 702 F.Supp. 109, 110 (D. Md. 1988)). In fact, "[s]ummary judgment is particularly well-suited for the resolution of insurance coverage disputes because the construction of insurance contracts is a legal question." Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Overlook, LLC, 785 F.Supp.2d 502, 512 (E.D. Va. 2011); see also Transcontinental Ins. Co. v. RBMW, Inc., 551 S.E.2d 313, 317 (Va. 2001) ("[Interpretation of the provisions of an insurance contract presents a question of law . . . .").


         I. Ap ...

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