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Allstate Insurance Co. v. Stearns

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

January 4, 2016



Stefan R. Underhill United States District Judge

This case is a declaratory judgment action brought by an insurer against its insured. Craig D. Stearns is the named insured on a “Deluxe Homeowners Policy” issued by Allstate Insurance Company. The policy also covers relatives and dependents in Stearns’s household, which includes his son Gregory, who is the defendant in a state court tort suit. Allstate, in its complaint and the present summary judgment motion (doc. # 18), seeks a declaration that the underlying litigation triggers no duty to defend or to indemnify under the policy. I heard oral argument on the motion on December 14, 2015, and though Stearns has not filed a cross-motion for summary judgment, both sides agreed at argument that there would be no outstanding issues after the resolution of this motion and that I could decide the case as a matter of law on the present record.

For the reasons that follow, Allstate’s motion for summary judgment is granted with respect to the duty to indemnify the underlying assault claim; the motion is denied with respect the underlying negligence claim and the duty to defend Stearns in the state court action. On the basis of the mutual assent of the parties at oral argument that all issues can be decided as a matter of law, I sua sponte construe Stearns’s arguments in his opposition memorandum as a cross-motion and grant summary judgment on the underlying negligence claim and on Allstate’s duty to defend. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 326 (1986) (“[D]istrict courts are widely acknowledged to possess the power to enter summary judgments sua sponte, so long as the losing party was on notice that she had to come forward with all of her evidence.”).

I. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is appropriate when the record demonstrates that “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 256 (1986) (plaintiff must present affirmative evidence in order to defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment).

When ruling on a summary judgment motion, the court must construe the facts of record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences against the moving party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255; Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Adickes v. S.H. Kress & Co., 398 U.S. 144, 158–59 (1970); see also Aldrich v. Randolph Cent. Sch. Dist., 963 F.2d. 520, 523 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 506 U.S. 965 (1992) (court is required to “resolve all ambiguities and draw all inferences in favor of the nonmoving party”). When a motion for summary judgment is properly supported by documentary and testimonial evidence, however, the nonmoving party may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but must present sufficient probative evidence to establish a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327 (1986); Colon v. Coughlin, 58 F.3d 865, 872 (2d Cir. 1995).

“Only when reasonable minds could not differ as to the import of the evidence is summary judgment proper.” Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991); see also Suburban Propane v. Proctor Gas, Inc., 953 F.2d 780, 788 (2d Cir. 1992). If the nonmoving party submits evidence that is “merely colorable, ” or is not “significantly probative, ” summary judgment may be granted. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249–50.

The mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact. As to materiality, the substantive law will identify which facts are material. Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted.

Id. at 247–48. To present a “genuine” issue of material fact, there must be contradictory evidence “such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party.” Id. at 248.

If the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of his case with respect to which he has the burden of proof at trial, then summary judgment is appropriate. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. In such a situation, “there can be ‘no genuine issue as to any material fact, ’ since a complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the nonmoving party’s case necessarily renders all other facts immaterial.” Id. at 322–23; accord Goenaga v. March of Dimes Birth Defects Found., 51 F.3d 14, 18 (2d Cir. 1995) (movant’s burden satisfied if he can point to an absence of evidence to support an essential element of nonmoving party’s claim). In short, if there is no genuine issue of material fact, summary judgment may enter. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323.

“Construction of a contract of insurance presents a question of law for the court” and is appropriate for resolution at summary judgment. Moore v. Cont’l Cas. Co., 252 Conn. 405, 409 (2000) (quoting Pacific Indemnity Ins. Co. v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 240 Conn. 26, 30 (1997)) (modification omitted). “The obligation of the insurer to defend does not depend on whether the injured party will successfully maintain a cause of action against the insured but on whether he has, in his complaint, stated facts which bring the injury within the coverage. If an allegation of the complaint falls even possibly within the coverage, then the insurance company must defend the insured.” Id. (quoting Flint v. Universal Machine Co., 238 Conn. 637, 646 (1996), and Schwartz v. Stevenson, 37 Conn.App. 581, 585 (1995)) (quotation marks and citations omitted). “The question of whether an insurer has a duty to defend its insured is purely a question of law, which is to be determined by comparing the allegations of [the] complaint with the terms of the insurance policy.” Cmty. Action for Greater Middlesex Cty., Inc. v. Am. All. Ins. Co., 254 Conn. 387, 395 (2000). “Because the duty to defend is significantly broader than the duty to indemnify, ‘where there is no duty to defend, there is no duty to indemnify . . . .’” DaCruz v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 268 Conn. 675, 688 (2004) (quoting QSP, Inc. v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 256 Conn. 343, 382 (2001)).

II. Background

A. Underlying Facts and Litigation

Gregory Stearns and Benjamin Lassow are teenage boys who in December 2012 were in a fistfight after school on the athletic fields at E.O. Smith High School in Mansfield, Connecticut. The details surrounding the fight are disputed, but a witness who claimed to be a friend of both boys gave his account in a written statement to the police.[1] He reported that he was hanging out by the track with Stearns and other friends while Lassow was running laps at hockey practice; that Lassow, while running laps, smirked at Stearns, that Stearns said “hey buddy, ” and that Lassow replied “hey faggit” [sic]. After that, according to the witness, Lassow ran one more lap and exchanged more words with Stearns, then left the track, approached Stearns, and asked whether he wanted to fight. Stearns then allegedly hopped over a fence to approach Lassow, the two boys squared up to fight, and Stearns punched Lassow on the nose. Lassow, according to the witness, stumbled backward, his brother approached, and Stearns fled. The police charged both Lassow and Stearns with Breach of Peace.

As a result of that altercation, Lassow (by his father and next friend, Michael Lassow) sued Stearns (by his father and next friend, Craig Stearns) in Connecticut Superior Court, [2]pleading claims for assault and negligence. Lassow alleges that his nose, nasal septum, and orbital floor were broken, and that he suffered nerve damage to his eye, and damage to his teeth, lips, and face, some of which may be permanent.

Stearns is insured for the relevant period under an Allstate Deluxe Homeowners Policy issued to his father, and Allstate has been providing his defense under a reservation of rights and defenses.[3] Allstate has brought this declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that the allegations in the underlying complaint do not implicate its coverage and that is has no duty to indemnify or defend against that lawsuit.

B. Insurance Policy

Allstate insured Gregory Stearns under Allstate Deluxe Homeowners Policy #925 301229 08/14, issued to Craig Stearns as named insured.[4] The ...

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