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Lowe v. First Financial Insurance Co.

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Western Division

February 23, 2015

Timothy Lowe and Belinda Lowe, Plaintiffs,
v.
First Financial Insurance Co., et al., Defendants.

ORDER

JOHN T. MAUGHMER, Magistrate Judge.

This case finds its origins in an October 13, 2003, motor vehicle accident involving plaintiff Timothy Lowe ("Lowe"), whose truck collided with a vehicle being operated by Casey Sowa ("Sowa"). Lowe was driving a truck owned by his employer Weston Transportation, Inc. ("Weston"). On or about September 28, 2004, Lowe entered into a settlement agreement with Sowa for $20, 000.00 (the limits of the liability coverage under Sowa's automobile insurance policy).[1] Following the settlement with Sowa, Lowe "began investigating whether there were other insurance policies which might provide coverage for the injuries received as a result of the October 2003 crash." Eventually, over ten years after the accident (but just shy of ten years after the settlement with Sowa), Lowe filed this lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Clay County, Missouri, against three insurance companies - defendants First Financial Insurance Company, Burlington Insurance Company, and Praetorian Insurance Company (formerly known as Insurance Corporation of Hanover).

Lowe contends that the named insurers provided insurance to Weston on the truck being driven by Lowe on October 13, 2003, and that the coverage included underinsured motorist coverage.[2] In the lawsuit, Lowe asserts that his damages from the October 13, 2003 accident exceed the $20, 000.00 received from Sowa's policy and, as a result, he seeks "to recover underinsured motorist benefits under the insurance policies issued" by the three insurance companies.[3] On September 9, 2014, the insurance companies removed the lawsuit to this Court, asserting that there was complete diversity of citizenship and "[u]pon information and belief, [the Lowes] are seeking damages in excess of $75, 000.00." Currently pending before the Court are the motions of the insurance companies to dismiss the Lowes' lawsuit. The insurance companies allege that Lowes' claims for underinsured motorist benefits are barred by MO. REV. STAT. § 516.110, which provides a statute of limitations of ten years on actions "upon any writing."[4]

In responding to the motions to dismiss filed by the insurance companies, the Lowes noted to the Court:

Even more fundamental [ sic ], the subject matter jurisdiction of this Court cannot be determined without reference to the insurance policies at issue; it cannot be determined from the pleadings on file. While this Court MAY have jurisdiction, that issue turns on the precise language of the insurance contracts, contracts which no movant has provided either to [the Lowes] or to this Court. Because the issue of subject matter jurisdiction is in flux, it is inappropriate for this Court to rule on the motions to dismiss [because] they are inappropriate and premature.

According to the Lowes, the insurance companies had not produced applicable policies or revealed policy limits. As such, the Lowes asserted that while they "do not doubt the diversity of the parties, ... they cannot concede the amount in controversy." The insurance companies ensuing reply briefing on their motions to dismiss did not address the lurking jurisdictional issue.

On January 23, 2015, the Court ordered the parties to brief the policy limits at issue in the litigation and advance arguments in support of the exercise of federal jurisdiction. Doc. 23. As noted by the Court, federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction and, as such, a threshold requirement in every federal case is jurisdiction. Bradley v. American Postal Workers Union, 962 F.2d 800, 802 n.3 (8th Cir. 1992). A federal court has an obligation to assure itself of its own subject matter jurisdiction, particularly where issues arise that call jurisdiction into question. Int'l Ass'n of Fire Fighters v. City of Clayton, 320 F.3d 849, 850 (8th Cir. 2003) ("The federal courts are under an independent obligation to examine their own jurisdiction.").

The court now has the parties' briefing on the issue of jurisdiction. With regard to the policy limits for underinsured insured motorist coverage First Financial Insurance Company states that its policy "sets forth an underinsured limit of $50, 000, " Burlington Insurance Company denies issuing any policy that applies to the relevant time period, and Praetorian Insurance Company states:

At the time Praetorian removed this action, it had the good faith belief that any policy of insurance covered by the Insurance Corporation of Hanover to a commercial trucking firm would have had policy limits in excess of $75, 000. To date, [Praetorian has not] located a policy issued by Insurance Corporation of Hanover to Weston Transportation.

Removal jurisdiction based on 28 U.S.C. § 1441 requires an amount in controversy in excess of $75, 000.00 in addition to complete diversity of citizenship. The Eighth Circuit has noted that "diversity jurisdiction in removal cases [is] narrower than if the case were originally filed in federal court by the plaintiff." Hurt v. Dow Chemical Company, 963 F.2d 1142, 1145 (8th Cir. 1992). Not surprisingly then "if one of the statutory requirements is not met, the district court has no jurisdiction." Id. at 1145. To that end, "[f]ederal courts are to strictly construe the amount in controversy requirement of diversity jurisdiction, as the purpose underlying the requirement is to limit the federal courts' diversity caseload." Corlew v. Denny's Restaurant, Inc., 983 F.Supp. 878, 879 (E.D. Mo. 1997) ( citing Snyder v. Harris, 394 U.S. 332, 339, 89 S.Ct. 1053, 1058, (1969)).

In their underlying PETITION FOR DAMAGES, each of the Lowes assert breach of contract claims against the three insurance companies "to recover underinsured motorist benefits under the insurance policies issued by the defendants." Accordingly, while the Lowes freely admit that their personal injuries exceed $75, 000, they further note:

This is not a tort case.... This is a contract case, plain and simple. There was a tort claim against the deceased driver, but that claim was extinguished when plaintiffs settled their claims against her estate for payment of her liability limits. There are no unasserted tort case[s] remaining to be filed. There is no other person who might be liable in tort for plaintiffs' injuries. All that remains to be resolved is plaintiffs' contract action against defendants.

In deciding whether the amount in controversy in a particular case exceeds $75, 000, a federal court must bear in mind that:

it is the amount or value of that which the complainant seeks to recover, or the sum or value of that which the defendant will lose if the complainant succeeds in his suit, that constitutes the jurisdictional sum or value ...

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