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Griffitts v. Old Republic Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

July 3, 2018

RICKY GRIFFITTS, Appellant,
v.
OLD REPUBLIC INSURANCE COMPANY, BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, and JAMES M. CAMPBELL, Respondents.

          Appeal From The Circuit Court of Greene County The Honorable Jason Brown, Judge.

          Paul C. Wilson, Judge.

         Appellant Ricky Lee Griffitts ("Griffitts") was rear-ended by James Campbell ("Campbell"), an employee of BNSF Railway Company ("BNSF"), in Springfield, Missouri. Campbell was driving a BNSF company vehicle and was intoxicated at the time of the collision. Numerous lawsuits ensued, including the instant equitable garnishment action that Griffitts filed against BNSF and its insurer, Old Republic (collectively, Respondents), to collect on the unsatisfied $1.475 million judgment entered against Campbell in an earlier action. Griffitts filed this equitable garnishment suit claiming Campbell was a permissive user under the omnibus clause of the insurance policy Old Republic issued to BNSF. This Court has jurisdiction under article V, section 10, of the Missouri Constitution. The judgment of the circuit court is vacated, and the case is remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.

         Background

         While employed with BNSF, Campbell was a foreman on a tie gang (a group of workers who travel the region and replace railroad ties) for BNSF. Campbell's position required him to travel to and stay at out-of-town job sites sometimes for up to a week or more in a multistate region. This region included Tennessee and Missouri. In January 2009, BNSF gave Campbell a BNSF-owned vehicle ("company vehicle") to use for work purposes.[1] While at home in Tennessee, however, Campbell was only permitted to use the company vehicle for work and did not have permission to use it for personal use.

         Then, in March 2009, Campbell's supervisor gave him permission to use the company vehicle to commute between his home in Tennessee and a job site in Springfield, Missouri. BNSF had no express policy or rule detailing what a BNSF employee could (or could not) use a company vehicle for while traveling to, staying near, and working at an out-of-town job site.[2] Campbell regularly used the company vehicle to get meals, go to job sites, and do other necessary errands. Campbell was never told he could not use the company vehicle in this way, nor was he disciplined for doing so. Other BNSF employees corroborated Campbell's use of the company vehicle in this manner, as they testified they also used company vehicles for the same purposes. In fact, one BNSF employee testified that, when he was traveling to, staying near, and working at an out-of-town job site, he used the company vehicle for any purpose for which he would use his own vehicle. Further, while Campbell was working at the job site in Springfield, BNSF was aware the company vehicle was his only means of transportation.

         Despite BNSF's lack of an express rule regarding when an employee could (or could not) use a company vehicle while traveling to, staying near, and working at an out-of-town job site, BNSF had rules and polices for other matters. Of particular significance are BNSF's policy on the Use of Alcohol and Drugs, section 3.1 of which prohibits the use or possession of alcohol "while on BNSF property, on duty, or operating BNSF work equipment or vehicles," and BNSF's Maintenance of Way Rule, section 1.5 of which prohibits "the use or possession of alcoholic beverages while on duty or on company property" (collectively, the Company Rules).

         On the day of the collision, Campbell traveled from his home in Tennessee to a motel in Springfield, where he would be staying while working at the BNSF job site nearby. After arriving at the motel around 5:00 p.m., Campbell joined other BNSF employees to eat barbecue, play video games, and drink alcohol. After a time, a few of Campbell's coworkers walked him back to his room, where he fell asleep for a few hours. Around 8:30 p.m., Campbell woke up and left the hotel in the company vehicle.

         Moments later, Campbell ran the company vehicle into the back of Griffitts's vehicle, which had been stopped at a traffic light. Griffitts sustained serious injuries from the collision. Campbell's vehicle ultimately came to rest in the parking lot of a Ruby Tuesday's restaurant.[3] The police arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. Campbell admitted to the responding officers he had been drinking and felt intoxicated. Campbell was arrested. Subsequent testing revealed his blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit.[4] Campbell's conduct prompted an internal investigation by BNSF and, in April 2009, Campbell was fired for violating the Company Rules.

         Campbell's collision has sparked a great deal of litigation. Of particular significance is Griffitts's third negligence lawsuit against Campbell, [5] in which the circuit court entered a $1.475 million judgment for Griffitts and against Campbell. That judgment went unsatisfied for 30 days, after which Griffitts filed the instant equitable garnishment action against Respondents on the ground Campbell was a permissive user under the omnibus clause of the insurance policy issued by Old Republic to BNSF.

         The only issue considered by the circuit court was whether Campbell, at the time of the collision, had permission to use the company vehicle under the omnibus clause of BNSF's insurance policy. The circuit court reasoned the Company Rules were rules of authorization or permission. Because Campbell was in violation of the Company Rules at the time of the accident, the circuit court concluded Campbell did not have permission to use the company vehicle at that time and, therefore, was not a permissive user under the omnibus clause of BNSF's policy. As a result, the circuit court entered judgment for Respondents.

         Standard of Review

         Appellate review of an equitable garnishment action is governed by Rule 73.01. Schmitz v. Great Am. Assur. Co., 337 S.W.3d 700, 705 (Mo. banc 2011). "The judgment will be affirmed unless there is no substantial evidence to support it or unless it is against the weight of the evidence, it erroneously declares the law, or it erroneously applies the law." Id. As with any other contract, the "interpretation of an insurance policy is a question of law that this Court determines de novo." Seeck v. Geico Gen. Ins. Co., 212 S.W.3d 129, 132 (Mo. banc 2007). "In construing the terms of an insurance policy, this Court applies the meaning which would be attached by an ordinary person of average understanding if purchasing insurance ...." Id. (quotation marks omitted). "Absent an ambiguity, an insurance policy must be enforced according to its terms." Id. Notably, "[w]here the policy language has already been judicially defined," no ambiguity exists, and "the judicial definition[] assigned to [a] policy term [is] controlling." Walden v. Smith, 427 S.W.3d 269, 274 (Mo. App. 2014). However, the ...


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