Justia Mississippi Supreme Court Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Insurance Law
Scruggs, et al. v. Farmland Mutual Insurance Co.
Almost two decades prior to this decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court handed down Farmland Mutual Insurance Co. v. Scruggs, 886 So. 2d 714 (Miss. 2004). In that opinion, the Court held that Farmland Mutual Insurance Co., the liability insurer for Mitchell Scruggs, Eddie Scruggs, Scruggs Farms & Supplies LLC, and Scruggs Farm Joint Venture (collectively, Scruggs), had no duty to defend Scruggs in a federal lawsuit by Monsanto Company. The reason no coverage applied was because Monsanto had alleged that Scruggs committed the intentional act of conversion by saving and using unlicensed seeds. Eight years later, a district court judge overturned a jury’s verdict that Scruggs had willfully violated Monsanto’s patents. Consequently, Scruggs was not liable for treble damages and attorney’s fees. Scruggs returned to state court in 2013. Citing Rule 60(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure, Scruggs asked the Lee County Circuit Court to reopen and vacate the final judgment entered in 2004 in favor of Farmland on the coverage issue. Scruggs asserted the Mississippi Supreme Court’s opinion had been erroneously decided based on facts that came to light in the federal case. The state court rejected the motion as untimely under Rule 60(b). Scruggs appealed. While Scruggs asserted the motion was timely, the Mississippi Supreme Court found the motion’s timing is irrelevant: Rule 60(b) was not a procedural vehicle for a trial court to overturn a mandate issued from the Mississippi Supreme Court. Because the trial court lacked jurisdiction to grant Scruggs’s request, the Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court’s denial of the motion. View "Scruggs, et al. v. Farmland Mutual Insurance Co." on Justia Law
Posted in: Agriculture Law, Civil Procedure, Insurance Law
Lee v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company
Niyokia Lee and James Cooper sustained damages in separate, independent automobile accidents caused by negligent city emergency responders. Lee’s accident happened in Harrison County, and Cooper’s happened in Rankin County. The Mississippi Tort Claims Act afforded immunity to the negligent police officer, the fireman, and the governmental entities employing them. Because Lee and Cooper could not recover from the responders or municipalities, both sought recovery under their car insurance policies’ uninsured motorist provisions. Lee and Cooper had the same UM coverage carrier—State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company. And State Farm denied UM coverage to both, citing Mississippi Code Section 83-11-101(1) of Mississippi’s Uninsured Motorist Act. As State Farm saw it, because the officer and fireman enjoyed police and fire protection immunity under the MTCA, neither policyholder was legally entitled to recover from the immune responders or their city employers. State Farm thus denied UM coverage to Lee and Cooper despite the fact that, in 2009, the state legislature had revised Mississippi Code Section 83-11-103(c) of the UM Act by adding a new subsection expanding the definition of “uninsured motor vehicle” to include “[a] motor vehicle owned or operated by a person protected by immunity under the [MTCA.]” The two trial courts considering the UM coverage issue reached opposite results. The Harrison County Circuit Court granted summary judgment in State Farm’s favor and dismissed Lee’s claims against State Farm, finding because the officer was immune, Lee was not "legally entitled to recover" and consequently, was not eligible for UM coverage. The Rankin County Court granted summary judgment in Cooper’s favor, against State Farm, ruling UM coverage did apply because, otherwise, the 2009 amendment to the UM Act, which expanded the definition of “uninsured motor vehicle” to include vehicles operated by persons who are immune under the MTCA, would be "rendered virtually meaningless." The Mississippi Supreme Court consolidating the two cases found that the plain language of the two provisions made it apparent that Lee and Cooper were entitled to UM coverage. It therefore reversed and remanded the decision of the Harrison County Circuit Court, and affirmed and remanded the decision of the Rankin County Circuit Court. View "Lee v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company" on Justia Law
Thornhill v. Walker-Hill Environmental, et al.
In July 2017, Jeremy Thornhill said that he had injured his back while working. He sought workers’ compensation benefits from his employer, Walker-Hill and its insurance carrier, Zurich American Insurance Company of Illinois (collectively, Employer/Carrier), but the Employer/Carrier denied that Thornhill had sustained a compensable injury. Ultimately, the parties agreed to compromise and settled pursuant to Mississippi Code Section 71-3-29 (Rev. 2021). Thornhill submitted the settlement to the Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission for approval. After examining the application, the Commission approved the settlement and dismissed Thornhill’s case with prejudice. Pursuant to the settlement, Thornhill signed a general release,” which reserved his right to pursue a bad faith claim. Believing he had exhausted his administrative remedies, Thornhill filed a bad faith suit against the Employer/Carrier. The Employer/Carrier moved to dismiss, arguing that Thornhill had not exhausted administrative remedies—and that the circuit court lacked jurisdiction—because the Commission never made a factual finding that he was entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. The trial court granted the motion on that basis. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, finding that Thornhill indeed exhausted his administrative remedies and that the circuit court had jurisdiction to hear his bad faith claim. Finding no reversible error in the appellate court’s decision, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed. View "Thornhill v. Walker-Hill Environmental, et al." on Justia Law
Posted in: Civil Procedure, Insurance Law, Labor & Employment Law, Personal Injury
Bufkin v. Geico Insurance Agency, Inc.
The question presented for the Mississippi Supreme Court in this case “boils down to one of statutory interpretation:” whether plaintiff Crystal Bufkin was “legally entitled to recover” damages from her employer under the uninsured motorist statute, Mississippi Code Section 83-11-101(1) (Supp. 2021). The Supreme Court previously held that employees are not legally entitled to recover from their employers and thus could not make a claim under uninsured motorist coverages. Bufkin acknowledged that precedent precluded her claim, but she argued Medders v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 623 So. 2d 979 (Miss. 1993 )and its progeny were wrongly decided because the uninsured motorist law should be liberally construed in her favor. The Supreme Court concluded it already rejected the arguments Bufkin presented here, and declined to overrule Medders. View "Bufkin v. Geico Insurance Agency, Inc." on Justia Law
Posted in: Civil Procedure, Insurance Law, Labor & Employment Law, Personal Injury
Gamma Healthcare Inc., et al. v. Estate of Sharon Burrell Grantham
The Workers’ Compensation Commission and an Administrative Judge (AJ) had ordered Gamma Healthcare and Employers Insurance Company of Wausau (Employer/Carrier) to replace Sharon Grantham’s septic and HVAC systems and to pay for insurance on a handicapped-accessible van. The Commission, sua sponte, issued a separate order sanctioning the Employer/Carrier for causing an unnecessary delay by appealing the AJ’s order to the full Commission without reasonable grounds. The Employer/Carrier appealed. While this case was pending before the Court of Appeals, Sharon Grantham died. Thereafter, the Court of Appeals dismissed the case as moot. The Court of Appeals applied the general rule followed by federal courts by vacating the outstanding Commission and AJ orders. The appeals court reversed and rendered the Commission’s sanctions order against the Employer/Carrier, determining that the Commission had abused its discretion by its imposition of the sanction, reasoning that the Employer/Carrier had a reasonable legal argument for its appeal. Grantham’s estate filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Mississippi Supreme Court granted. The Supreme Court concluded that in light of Grantham’s untimely death and the concession by her estate, it agreed with the Court of Appeals that this case was moot. "However, the main issue is not whether the case is moot. Rather it is whether the Court of Appeals erred by vacating the Commission’s and the AJ’s valid orders to replace the septic and HVAC systems in a case that became moot on appeal due to circumstances beyond the control of the parties. Additionally, did the court err by following federal vacatur law instead of existing Mississippi law?" These were issues of first impression. the Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals did not err and that the federal vacatur rule was appropriate. The Commission’s orders were vacated properly. Furthermore, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ reversing and rendering of the Commission’s sanctions award. View "Gamma Healthcare Inc., et al. v. Estate of Sharon Burrell Grantham" on Justia Law
Omega Protein, Inc. v. Evanston Insurance Company
An explosion at the Omega Protein Plant in Moss Point, Mississippi killed one man and seriously injured several others. Multiple lawsuits were filed against Omega in federal district court. Colony Insurance Company filed a declaratory judgment action in state circuit court seeking a declaration that it did not cover bodily injuries arising out of the Moss Point facility explosion. Evanston Insurance Company intervened also seeking a declaration of no coverage for the same injuries: Evanston provided a $5 million excess liability policy, which provided coverage after Colony’s $1 million policy was exhausted. Because Colony settled one of the underlying personal injury cases for $1 million (the limits under its policy), Omega sought excess coverage from Evanston for the injuries that occurred at its plant. A special master was appointed, and the trial court granted Evanston’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the pollution exclusion in the insurance contract barred coverage. Omega appealed that grant of summary judgment. The Mississippi Supreme Court found that a pollution exclusion in the insurance contract was ambiguous, and should have been construed in favor of the insured, allowing coverage. Further, the Court found the question of whether coverage was triggered was governed by the language of the contract, and that Evanston failed to prove there could be no coverage under the excess liability policy. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment as to all issues and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "Omega Protein, Inc. v. Evanston Insurance Company" on Justia Law
Posted in: Business Law, Civil Procedure, Contracts, Insurance Law, Personal Injury
Estate of Greenwood v. Montpelier US Insurance Company, et al.
William Greenwood was in the business of salvaging valuable materials from old buildings. Greenwood was insured by Mesa Underwriters Specialty Insurance Company through a policy sold by Dixie Specialty Insurance. Greenwood was later sued by adjoining building owners who complained he had damaged their property, and Mesa denied coverage based, in part, on a policy exclusion for demolition work. Greenwood later brought suit against his insurers alleging breach of contract and bad-faith denial of coverage. Greenwood averred that his business was actually “deconstruction” rather than demolition, but the trial court granted summary judgment to the insurers. Finding no reversible error in that judgment, the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "Estate of Greenwood v. Montpelier US Insurance Company, et al." on Justia Law
Viking Insurance Company of Wisconsin v. Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company
Viking Insurance Company appealed a circuit court's grant of summary judgment. The circuit court adjudged that stacking uninsured-motorist coverages in a Viking policy should have been separated for purposes of the State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co. v. Kuehling, 475 So. 2d 1159 (Miss. 1985), offset. Viking covered the insured through a single policy covering both the vehicle involved in the accident, and an uninvolved vehicle while Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company covered the insured through a single policy covering two uninvolved vehicles. The circuit court applied the offset first to Viking’s coverage of the involved vehicle, and then allocated the remainder between Viking’s and Farm Bureau’s coverages of uninvolved vehicles. As the parties agreed regarding the facts of this case, the only issue before the Mississippi Supreme Court was whether or not Farm Bureau was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The Court found the circuit court erred: Viking was the primary insurer, so it was entitled to an offset against its entire stacking policy amount first. It was error to apply a pro rata offset in this case. Accordingly, judgment was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings. View "Viking Insurance Company of Wisconsin v. Mississippi Farm Bureau Casualty Insurance Company" on Justia Law
Posted in: Insurance Law
Progressive Gulf Insurance Company v. Kaur, et al.
At issue before the Mississippi Supreme Court in this interlocutory appeal was whether the trial court erred by finding cause to grant a 120-day extension of time to serve process on Progressive Gulf Insurance Company. Plaintiffs, Jaswinder Kaur, Harvinder Singh, Karanveer Kamboj, and Gurdev Kamboj, were occupants of a vehicle that was involved in a collision with a vehicle operated by Mary Orebo and owned by Cassandra Mann. Plaintiffs’ vehicle had uninsured-motorist coverage provided by Progressive Gulf Insurance Company. Each Plaintiff filed a separate suit against all three Defendants on the eve of the expiration of the three-year statute of limitations. Progressive contended that difficulty locating other Defendants, the owner and driver of the vehicle, was not adequate cause. After review, the Supreme Court concluded the circuit court did not abuse its discretion in that decision. However, all parties agreed that the circuit court erred by refusing to dismiss the suits of three of the Plaintiffs who failed to seek extensions of time to serve process on Progressive before the end of the original 120-day period. View "Progressive Gulf Insurance Company v. Kaur, et al." on Justia Law
Posted in: Civil Procedure, Insurance Law, Personal Injury
White v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company
Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company issued two public-official bonds as surety for Eddie Carthan, a member of the Holmes County, Mississippi Board of Supervisors. On appeal, the State Auditor claimed Nationwide was liable under both bonds. The undisputed facts showed the Board never paid the premium for the first bond, which was only for a year. Instead, the Board asked if the first bond could be “converted” to a four-year bond that would cover Carthan’s entire term. Nationwide complied with the Board’s request. It cancelled the first bond and issued a second bond covering Carthan’s entire term for which the Board paid the premium. After review, the Mississippi Supreme Court found no evidence that Carthan was actually secured simultaneously by two separate bonds. Rather, the Court found the undisputed facts showed the Board intended to procure and did in fact obtain one public-official bond in the amount of $100,000 as surety for Carthan. Because Nationwide paid $100,000 under the second, paid-for bond, the chancellor did not err by granting Nationwide summary judgment on all claims based on the first bond. View "White v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company" on Justia Law
Posted in: Government & Administrative Law, Insurance Law