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Ranger Insurance Co. v. General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corp.

argued: June 5, 1986.

RANGER INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLANT
v.
GENERAL ACCIDENT FIRE AND LIFE ASSURANCE CORPORATION, LTD., APPELLEE



ON APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA D.C. Civil No. 85-3537

Author: Gibbons

Opinion OF THE COURT

Before GIBBONS, BECKER, and STAPLETON, Circuit Judges

GIBBONS, Circuit Judge:

In this appeal we review a district court's disposition of a motion for summary judgment in a declaratory judgment action involving two insurance companies. The plaintiff Ranger Insurance Company (Ranger) sought to have the district court declare that the defendant General Accident Fire and Life Assurance Corp., Ltd. (General) was the principal insurer of one Leslie Gaylor to whom Ranger was potentially liable under a policy it had issued. General moved for summary judgment, contending that the issue of its relationship to Gaylor had already been litigated and that Ranger was bound by the outcome of that litigation. The district court agreed with General and entered summary judgment in its favor. Ranger appeals.

I.

On January 26, 1983 Leslie Gaylor was seriously injured in an accident while he was riding in a van driven by an employee of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. At the time of the accident the county had a comprehensive automobile insurance policy issued by Ranger. In July 1983 Gaylor filed a complaint in the Court of Common Pleas for Delaware County against, amongst others, Delaware County, alleging that the county's negligence had caused his injuries and seeking monetary damages.

In late 1984 Gaylor and the county agreed upon a settlement, which they presented to the court for approval. At a hearing scheduled to review the proposed settlement, the court considered a petition submitted by Deborah Rossi, who apparently had cohabitated with Gaylor for some time before the accident in which he was injured. Rossi, to whom General had issued a comprehensive injury policy, requested that the court declare her the common-law wife of Gaylor, presumably so as to qualify her for a share of the proposed settlement. The court admitted evidence on the petition and heard testimony. In a single order the Pennsylvania court approved the settlement and denied Rossi's petition. No appeal was taken from this order. Since then, according to its brief, Ranger has paid more than $200,000 to Gaylor, and is liable, under the settlement, for further no-fault payments.

II.

On June 20, 1985 Ranger filed in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania a complaint in which it sought a declaratory judgment that, under the policy General had issued to Rossi, General was the primary insurance carrier with respect to the personal injury protection of Gaylor. Central to Ranger's claim was its contention that "Leslie Gaylor and Debra Rossi had a common law marriage." See Complaint at 3, reprinted in Joint Appendix at 433.

General filed a motion for summary judgment. In support of that motion General argued that the Pennsylvania court's dismissal of Rossi's petition collaterally estopped Ranger from basing any legal claim on an allegation that she and Gaylor had a common law marriage.

The district court granted General's motion for summary judgment. In its accompanying opinion the district court, recognizing that Ranger could recover only if it could establish that Rossi was the common-law wife of Gaylor, held that Ranger was collaterally estopped from litigating that issue. The court thus concluded that summary judgment was appropriate.

III.

Both parties agree that Ranger can prevail in its action against General only if it can demonstrate that Rossi -- General's insured -- was Gaylor's common-law wife. The district court predicated its grant of summary judgment in favor of General on the ground that the prior state court adjudication of Rossi's marital status estopped Ranger from attempting to demonstrate this relationship in the subsequent district court proceeding. As no factual disputes exist on the record, we need only assess the propriety of the district court's ...


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