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Guideone Mutual Insurance Co. v. Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

April 2, 2019

GUIDEONE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff,
v.
COTE BRILLIANTE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY G. FLEISSIG, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff's motion for summary judgment (ECF No. 23) in this diversity action for declaratory judgment arising out of an insurance policy. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Defendant Cote Brilliante Presbyterian Church is a religious institution in the City of St. Louis, Missouri. At the time relevant to this case, the Church carried property and casualty insurance under a policy issued by Plaintiff GuideOne Mutual Insurance Company. At some point between 2012 and 2016, the Church hired Christopher Kiepper to perform maintenance on its pipe organ. In the course of that work, Mr. Kiepper damaged the organ in the amount of $700, 000. In February 2018, the Church submitted the claim to GuideOne for coverage under the policy. GuideOne refused to pay the claim and filed this action seeking a declaration of no coverage. In response, the Church filed a counterclaim for vexatious refusal and bad faith (ECF No. 13). GuideOne sought leave to file a motion for summary judgment prior to the completion of discovery (ECF No. 22), and this Court granted the motion (ECF No. 27), which has been fully briefed.[1]

         DISCUSSION

         Legal Standards

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) provides that summary judgment shall be entered “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Material facts are those “that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law, ” and a genuine material fact is one such that “a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). Courts must view facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and resolve all doubts against the moving party. Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 378 (2007).

         In a diversity case governed by Missouri law, the Court is “bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court of Missouri” and will “follow decisions from the intermediate state courts when they are the best evidence of Missouri law.” Gray v. FedEx Ground Package Sys., Inc., 799 F.3d 995, 999 (8th Cir. 2015). In construing the terms of an insurance policy, Missouri courts “apply the meaning which would be attached by an ordinary person of average understanding if purchasing insurance and resolve ambiguities in favor of the insured.” Jensen v. Allstate Ins. Co., 349 S.W.3d 369, 373 (Mo. App. W.D. 2011) (citing Burns v. Smith., 303 S.W.3d 505, 509 (Mo. 2010)). “When an insurer brings a declaratory judgment [action] seeking to prevent coverage under the insurance policy, the burden of establishing the exclusion of coverage rests with the insurer.” American Family Mut. Ins. Co. v. Arnold Muffler, Inc., 21 S.W.3d 881, 883 (Mo. App. E.D. 2000).

         According to the foregoing standards, any ambiguity of fact or law must be construed in favor of the Church at this stage, and GuideOne bears the burden of showing that coverage for the Church's claim is excluded under the policy. Mindful of these standards, the Court finds GuideOne's motion meritorious.

         Analysis

         In support of its motion for summary judgment, GuideOne asserts that the plain language of the policy expressly excludes damage sustained in the course of any repair or maintenance work. Specifically, the Exclusions section states in pertinent part:

We will not pay for loss or damage caused by or resulting from any of the following . . . Faulty, inadequate or defective . . . (2) Design, specifications, workmanship, repair, construction, renovation, remodeling, grading, compaction . . . or (4) Maintenance; of part or all of any property on or off the described premises. ECF No. 1-1, p. 76.

         In response, the Church contends that the policy, when read as a whole, is ambiguous as to whether coverage exists for its claim. Specifically, the Church relies on the following language of the Additional Coverages section:

If a Covered Cause of Loss occurs to covered Building property, and causes the enforcement of any ordinance or law that (a) is in force at the time the cause of loss occurs, and (b) regulates the demolition, repair or reconstruction of that building, or establishes zoning or land use requirements ...

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