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Spalding v. Stewart Title Guaranty Co.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

September 23, 2014

RANDY SPALDING, Respondent,
v.
STEWART TITLE GUARANTY COMPANY, Appellant.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Michael W. Manners, Judge

Before Victor C. Howard, P.J., James Edward Welsh, and Anthony Rex Gabbert, JJ.

OPINION

JAMES EDWARD WELSH, JUDGE

Stewart Title Guaranty Company appeals the circuit court's judgment in favor of Randy Spalding after a jury trial on his claims for breach of contract and vexatious refusal to pay in regard to a title insurance policy. Stewart Title contends that the circuit court erred: (1) in denying its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict because the suit on the title insurance policy was time barred under the five year statute of limitations for breach of contract, (2) in refusing to give its proposed instruction concerning its statute of limitations defense, (3) in denying its motions for directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict because Spalding failed to make a submissible case as to the existence and amount of the damages for the breach of contract, (4) in admitting evidence from appraiser Brian Reardon regarding the damages sustained from the title defect under the policy, and (5) in giving Instruction No. 7, which defined the measure of damages in accordance with the highest and best use of the property. Further, Stewart Title asserts that, if this court reverses the circuit court's judgment regarding the breach of contract claim, then the circuit court necessarily erred in failing to grant Stewart Title's motions for directed verdict, judgment notwithstanding the verdict, or new trial on the vexatious refusal to pay claim. We affirm.

Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the judgment, the evidence established that, in 2003, Spalding contracted to buy approximately 419 acres of property in the City of Lake Winnebago, Cass County, Missouri. The land was bound by 167th Street, the existing Lake Winnebago Dam, and Missouri Route 291, and much of the land is in a federally-designated flood area. Spalding and his wife formed an entity named Spalding Land Company (SLC) to take title to the property in February 2003. The land was in receivership at the time of the acquisition, and SLC acquired the land for $1, 510, 000.

Stewart Title issued a policy of title insurance to SLC on February 12, 2003, in the amount of $1.7 million, insuring the property as described in Schedule A of the policy. Pursuant to the policy, Stewart Title insured against loss or damage sustained or incurred by SLC by reason of ""[t]itle to the estate or interest described in Schedule A being vested other than as stated therein;" "[a]ny defect in or lien or encumbrance on the title;" "[u]nmarketability of the title;" and "[l]ack of a right of access to and from the land." The policy stated that it was "a contract of indemnity against actual monetary loss or damage sustained or incurred by the insured claimant" with liability not to exceed the lesser of "(i) the Amount of Insurance stated in Schedule A; or, (ii) the difference between the value of the insured estate or interest as insured and the value of the insured estate or interest subject to the defect, lien or encumbrance insured against by this policy."

After purchasing the land, Spalding began talking with various people about developing the land. In 2005, Matt Bowen, John Bowen, and Scott Westlake created a new company named South Winnebago Partners (SWP). SWP began working with Spalding and SLC on plans for developing the property. The parties developed a plan to expand the existing Lake Winnebago into the flood area on the property to create new lake front lots and traditional lots with lake-access rights.[1] In 2007, pursuant to an amended and restated operating agreement, SWP became one of the two members of SLC, along with Spalding. SWP also became the manager of SLC. The agreement recognized that the property was Spalding's contribution to SLC and that "services" were SWP's contribution to SLC.

At some point, SLC sought (and later eventually obtained) a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to partially remove the existing dam, to construct a new dam and spillway, and to expand Lake Winnebago. SLC also contracted with HNTB to be the land planner and with Olsson and Associates to perform engineering work. Further, SWP acquired options to purchase on surrounding parcels of land that might be needed for the project. Moreover, SLC presented its plan to the Lake Winnebago Homeowners Association and the City of Lake Winnebago, and both entities were supportive of the plan.

Things appeared to be progressing with the development plan until January 2006 when Spalding received a telephone call from Paul Estes. Estes claimed that he owned a one acre tract of land at the bottom of the lake proposed by SLC. Realizing that Estes's claim could preclude the development of the lake, Spalding contacted Coffelt Title, the agent for Stewart Title which had issued the title insurance policy to SLC. Coffelt Title responded with a letter to Spalding, dated March 21, 2006, acknowledging Spalding's claim and advising Spalding to contact Stewart Title regarding his claim.

As it turned out, both SLC and Estes held deeds showing that they owned this one-acre tract of land. Both SLC and Estes had purchased title insurance from Stewart Title, and both Estes and Spalding contacted Stewart Title about a possible title defect. From April 2006 until mid-June 2006, Stewart Title conducted an investigation to determine whether SLC or Estes possessed good title to the one-acre tract of land. On June 16, 2006, Stewart Title completed its investigation and determined that Estes owned the one-acre tract and that SLC did not. On July 15, 2006, Spalding contacted Stewart Title, and SLC made a claim under the title insurance policy.

After discovering that SLC's title was defective, Stewart Title made an election under paragraph 6 of the policy and chose to pay the loss suffered by SLC as a result of the defect. Paragraph 6 provides:

6. OPTIONS TO PAY OR OTHERWISE SETTLE CLAIMS; TERMINATION OF LIABILITY.
In case of a claim under this policy, the Company shall have the following additional options:
(a) To Pay or Tender Payment of the Amount of Insurance.
(b) To Pay or Otherwise Settle With Parties Other than the Insured or With the Insured Claimant
(i) to pay or otherwise settle with other parties for or in the name of an insured claimant any claim insured against under this policy, together with any costs, attorneys' fees and expenses incurred by the insured claimant which were authorized by the Company up to the time of payment and which the Company is obligated to pay; or
(ii) to pay or otherwise settle with the insured claimant the loss or damage provided for under this policy, together with any costs, attorneys' fees and expenses incurred by the insured claimant which were authorized by the Company up to the time of payment and which the Company is obligated to pay.
Upon the exercise by the Company of either of the options provided for in paragraphs (b)(i) or (ii), the Company's obligations to the insured under this policy for the claimed loss or damage, other than the payments required to be made, shall terminate, including any ...

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