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Cross v. Warren

Supreme Court of Montana

March 5, 2019


          Argued: September 21, 2018

          Submitted: September 25, 2018

          APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Twenty-Second Judicial District, In and For the County of Big Horn, Cause No. DV 15-21 Honorable Blair Jones, Presiding Judge

          For Appellants:

          A. Clifford Edwards (argued), Roger W. Frickle, Edwards, Frickle & Culver, Billings, Montana

          John C. Heenan (argued), Colin Gerstner, Gerstner Law PLLC Billings, Montana (for Lana Redfield)

          Shane Colton, Jaclyn S. Laferriere, Edmiston & Colton, Billings, Montana (for Henley & Nicola Brady)

          For Appellees:

          Mark S. Williams (argued), Susan Moriarity Miltko, Williams Law Firm, Missoula, Montana (for Progressive Direct Ins. Company)

          Paul Haffeman, Davis, Hatley, Haffeman & Tighe, Great Falls, Montana (for Robert and Sherle Warren and Grass Chopper LLC)

          Tammy Wyatt-Shaw, Hammer, Quinn & Shaw, Kalispell, Montana (for Taylor Warren)

          For Amici:

          Ann L. Moderie, Moderie Law Firm, Polson, Montana (for Montana Trial Lawyers Association)

          Martha Sheehy, Sheehy Law Firm, Billings, Montana (for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America)



         ¶1 Upon the District Court's certification of the issue pursuant to M. R. Civ. P. 54(b), Plaintiffs appeal the portion of the summary judgment order entered in favor of the Defendants, which denied Plaintiffs' claim that the four separate motor vehicle liability insurance coverages purchased by Robert and Sherle Warren (Warrens) from Progressive Direct Insurance Company (Progressive), should be "stacked" for application toward Plaintiffs' injury claims. Progressive appears in defense of the District Court's order. We affirm, addressing the following issue:

         Did the District Court err by denying Plaintiffs' claim to stack the Defendants' motor vehicle liability insurance coverages for application to Plaintiffs' injury claims?


         ¶2 On January 8, 2015, while driving a 2000 GMC Sierra pick-up truck owned by his parents, Robert and Sherle Warren, eighteen-year-old Taylor Warren caused an accident resulting in injuries to Kenneth Cross, Henley Brady, and Roland Redfield. The truck was emblazed with "Grass Chopper" insignias on its door panels. Robert Warren owned and operated Grass Chopper, LLC as a sole proprietorship, but the truck was personally owned by the Warrens. For purposes of the insurance question before us in this appeal, liability for the accident is not disputed.

         ¶3 At the time of the accident, Taylor Warren was an insured driver, and the truck he was driving was an insured vehicle, under a Progressive motor vehicle insurance policy purchased by the Warrens. The policy covered all four members of the Warren family and included separate liability coverages for each of the Warrens' four vehicles. Each vehicle's coverage provided identical bodily injury liability coverage limits of $100, 000 for each person or $300, 000 for each accident, although the premiums charged to the Warrens were different for each vehicle: Cadillac Escalade-$267; Chevy Impala-$251; Pontiac Grand Am-$184; and GMC Sierra-$249.

         ¶4 Following the accident, Progressive paid the limit of liability coverage, $100, 000 to each of the three Plaintiffs injured in the accident (or, $300, 000 total for the accident), under the Warrens' coverage on the GMC Sierra pick-up truck involved in the accident. However, Plaintiffs claimed, as set forth in their March 2016 Amended Complaint, that they were entitled to recover based upon the combined, or stacked, liability coverage limits for all four of the Warrens' vehicles, thus totaling $400, 000 per person or $1, 200, 000 for the accident. Progressive denied Plaintiffs' claim to stack the four liability coverages, arguing that Plaintiffs had received the limits of the liability coverage available to them under the Warrens' policy. The parties filed competing motions for summary judgment on the issue.

         ¶5 Noting that this Court had not ruled that third-party liability coverages were stackable, the District Court cited the rulings of federal courts applying Montana law to the issue, which had denied stacking. The court reasoned that Montana cases requiring stacking of first-party coverages were inapplicable because first-party and third-party coverages were fundamentally different, that only named insureds could stack their coverages, that third-party liability coverage was not personal and portable like first-party coverage, and that prohibition upon the stacking of third-party liability coverage did not render the Warrens' policy's coverage illusory. The District Court concluded that, "[b]ecause third party liability coverages are not stackable in Montana, § 33-23-203, MCA, Montana's anti-stacking statute, seems ill-suited when applied to an insurer that is attempting to avoid the stacking of third party liability limits," noting the Insurance Commissioner had promulgated instructions, pursuant to the statute, for filing of rates for stacking of first-party coverages, but not third-party coverages. Therefore, the District Court granted summary judgment to the Defendants. ¶6 Plaintiffs appeal.


         ¶7 We review de novo a district court's ruling on summary judgment. City of Missoula v. Mt. Water Co., 2016 MT 183, ¶ 19, 384 Mont. 193, 378 P.3d 1113.


         ¶8 Plaintiffs argue the District Court erred by failing to apply § 33-23-203, MCA, to the question of stacking the third-party liability coverage claimed here. Plaintiffs characterize the statute as having been changed by 2007 amendments from "an anti- stacking statute into a pro-stacking statute," which now requires coverages to be stacked unless the insurer takes affirmative action otherwise. The oft-amended provision now states, in relevant part:

(1) Unless a motor vehicle liability policy specifically provides otherwise, the limits of insurance coverage available under each part of the policy must be determined as follows, regardless of the number of motor vehicles insured under the policy, the number of policies issued by the same ...

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