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Bate v. Greenwich Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Missouri

June 16, 2015

RAY CHARLES BATE AND DEBORAH SUE BATE, Appellants,
v.
GREENWICH INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF BOONE COUNTY. The Honorable Christine Carpenter, Judge.

The Bates were represented by Susan Ford Robertson and J. Zachary Bickel of The Robertson Law Group LLC in Kansas City; Christian L. Faiella and Rex V. Gump of Tatlow, Gump, Faiella & Wheelan in Moberly.

Greenwich was represented by Steven J. Hughes, Robyn Greifzu Fox and Natalie Higgins of Pitzer Snodgrass PC in St. Louis.

OPINION

Mary R. Russell, Chief Justice.

Two years after a default judgment was entered against a foreign insurance company, it sought to have the judgment set aside as void for lack of personal jurisdiction. The trial court entered judgment to set aside the default. The only question presented by this case is whether the insurer received valid service of process.

Rule 54.18 states that where a statute provides for a method of service, service may be made pursuant to the statute or as provided by rule. Service of process here was made under section 375.906, and all requirements of that statute were met. This Court reverses the judgment to set aside the default judgment on the issue of service of process. The case is remanded.

Background

Ray Charles Bate and Deborah Bate (the Bates) were each seriously injured in a head-on vehicle collision. The Bates sued Rocky Wells, the driver of the opposing vehicle and obtained a judgment totaling $3 million. The Bates filed suit against Greenwich Insurance Company seeking underinsured motorist coverage under a policy allegedly issued to Charles Bate's employer by Greenwich.[1]

As an authorized foreign insurance company under section 375.906, RSMo 2000,[2] the Director of the Missouri Department of Insurance (Director) was designated as Greenwich's agent for acceptance of service of process. A copy of the petition and summons were delivered by the sheriff to the Director, and the original copy of the sheriff's return was filed with the trial court. The Director then forwarded the petition and summons to Greenwich via first class mail and filed an affidavit of service with the trial court pursuant to 20 CSR 800-2.010. Greenwich did not answer the petition, and the Bates obtained a default judgment in the amount of the judgment against Wells.

Over two years later, Greenwich made a limited appearance and filed an amended motion to set aside the default judgment as void under Rule 74.06(b)(4). The motion primarily centered on Greenwich's argument that service of process was invalid because the Bates did not comply with the service of process and proof of service requirements in Rules 54.15 and 54.20.

The Bates replied that they effected service under section 375.906, not Rule 54.15, and that Rule 54.18 afforded them that option. Greenwich argued that service under section 375.906 is supplemented by the service of process and proof of service requirements in Rule 54.15 and Rule 54.20 or, alternatively, that section 375.906 was inapplicable to the Bates' claim. The trial court agreed with Greenwich and set aside the default judgment as void, stating only that " there was no valid service of process and therefore no personal jurisdiction" over Greenwich. The Bates appeal, arguing that the default judgment against Greenwich was not void because they properly served Greenwich under section 375.906 as permitted by Rule 54.18.[3] This Court granted transfer after OPINION of appeals. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 10.

Standard of Review

A trial court's ruling on a Rule 74.06(b) motion is in the nature of an independent proceeding and is appealable. In re Marriage of Hendrix, 183 S.W.3d 582, 587 (Mo. banc 2006). Normally, a court's action under Rule 74.06(b) is reviewed for abuse of discretion. Id. However, as the determination of personal jurisdiction is a question of law, whether a judgment is void on jurisdictional grounds under Rule 74.06(b)(4) is subject to de novo review. Forsyth Fin. Grp., LLC v. Hayes, 351 S.W.3d 738, 740 (Mo. App. 2011). Finality of judgments is favored and the concept of a void judgment is narrowly restricted. Goins v. Goins, 406 S.W.3d 886, 891-92 (Mo. banc 2013). A judgment is void under Rule ...


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