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State of Delaware Insurance Coverage office v. Choudry

Superior Court of Delaware

July 24, 2013

State of Delaware Insurance Coverage Office, Appellant,
v.
Rabrinda Choudry and Debjani Choudry, Appellees

Submitted: June 26, 2013

On Appeal from a Decision of the Court of Common Pleas.

Marc P. Niedzielski, Esq. Deputy Attorney General State of Delaware Department of Justice Attorney for Appellant,

Joel H. Fredericks, Esq. Casarino Christman Shalk Ransom & Doss, P.A. Attorney for Appellees.

Dear Counsel:

INTRODUCTION

A familiar tenet of statutory construction holds that an unambiguous statute will be construed according to its plain meaning. This is the approach that must be taken with respect to 21 Del. C. § 2118. For the reasons stated below, it is the finding of this Court that the State of Delaware Insurance Coverage Office is not a self insured entity for the limited purposes of 21 Del. C. § 2118. It is therefore not required to initially proceed in arbitration, and may file a claim in the Justice of the Peace Court or any other court of competent jurisdiction.

The opinion of the Court of Common Pleas dated August 1, 2012 is hereby REVERSED, and the matter is REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this Order.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

The facts in this matter are generally not in dispute. In August of 2009, [1] a collision occurred between a marked Delaware State Police cruiser operated by Trooper Michael Cahall and a car operated by Rabrinda Choudry[2] and owned by his mother, Debjani Choudry.[3] Both vehicles sustained damage.[4]

PROCEDURAL POSTURE

The ICO filed its initial claim against the Choudrys in arbitration with the Insurance Commissioner.[5] The Insurance Commissioner Panel denied recovery on September 16, 2010, and the ICO appealed to the Superior Court on October 13, 2010.[6] On April 13, 2011, a stipulation of dismissal without prejudice was filed, and on June 6, 2011, Appellants filed a trespass complaint in the Justice of the Peace Court No. 13.[7] On December 13, 2011, the Justice of the Peace Court found in favor of the ICO; the Defendants then filed an appeal with the Court of Common Pleas.[8] On August 1, 2012, the Court of Common Pleas issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order, holding that because it found the ICO to be governed by the scope of Section 2118(g), both the Justice of the Peace Court and the Court of Common Pleas lacked jurisdiction in the matter, and that ICO's claim should have been initially pursued through arbitration.[9] The Court of Common Pleas accordingly vacated the decision of the Justice of the Peace Court. On August 7, 2012, Appellant filed the instant appeal.[10]

PARTIES' CONTENTIONS

Appellant makes the following arguments in support of its appeal:
1. Title 21 Del. C. § 2118 does not apply to the State's self insurance program as the state is exempt from the Financial Responsibility Act and the State's plan is separately authorized pursuant to 18 Del. C. Chapter 65, Subchapter III;
2. The Plaintiff's claims are not subrogation claims, but the direct losses of the State for which recovery is sought; and
3. Failure to engage in Insurance Commissioner's Arbitration, if available, does not divest a court of subject matter jurisdiction.[11]
Appellees make the following arguments in answer to Appellant's appeal:
1. The Court of Common Pleas properly held that a self-insurer may not seek subrogation against an individual who had insurance coverage at the time of the accident; and
2. The court below correctly held that the Justice of the Peace Court lacked jurisdiction to decide subrogation disputes between self-insured entities and insurers.[12]

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Appeals from the Court of Common Pleas to this Court "shall be reviewed on the record and shall not be tried de novo."[13]The Superior Court's function when addressing an appeal from the Court of Common Pleas is similar to that of the Delaware Supreme Court.[14] The Superior Court must limit its review to correcting errors of law and determining whether the lower court judge's factual findings "are adequately supported by the record and are the product of orderly and logical deductive process."[15] If a Court of Common Pleas decision is supported by sufficient evidence, it must be accepted by the Delaware Superior Court.[16]

DISCUSSION

The ultimate issue in this matter is whether the ICO is a self insured entity for the purposes of Section 2118.

When statutory language is clear and unambiguous on its face, no additional judicial interpretation is required and courts must not engage in further statutory construction.[17] A statute may be ambiguous because it is unclear on its face or because its application as the plain language is written would lead to an absurd result.[18] When the language of a statute is unambiguous, however, a court may not employ considerations of legislative intent or other extrinsic matters to arrive at a statutory meaning contrary to its plain meaning.[19]Stated differently, clear and unambiguous statutory language must be both a starting point and an ending point for a court's analysis.

Clear, unambiguous statutory language functions as notice to the people who must adhere to the terms of the statute.[20] An unambiguous statute is treated as giving effect to the intent of the legislature; its meaning evidences legislative intent.[21] In Delaware, "the goal of statutory construction is to determine and give effect to legislative intent."[22]Therefore, unambiguous language is conclusive evidence of the clear intent of the legislature.[23]

In the matter at issue here, because the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous on its face, the Court need not look beyond the statutory language itself to determine whether Section 2118 applies to the ICO.

Section 2118(a) explicitly refers to Section 2904 for the definition of "self insured, "[24]and by this means, adopts the other statute by reference.[25]This definition of "self insured" therefore appears to be intended to remain consistent through the entirety of Section 2118. A reading of Section 2904 further underscores the apparent intention of the legislature that the two sections are to be examined in tandem. Section 2904(b) holds that an application for self insurance from a "person" will be approved provided that certain criteria are satisfied.[26] The criteria specified refer to requirements under Section 2118.[27]The two statutes, therefore, should be read together, as Appellant urges, in that both reinforce the fact that a self insurer is to be subject to 2118.

Finally, when the discussion involves a State-owned vehicle as does the matter now before the Court, the Court need not apply the three-part requirements of 2904. The General Provisions section of Chapter 29 (Motor Vehicle Safety— Responsibility) specifically provides that "[t]his chapter shall not apply with respect to any motor vehicle owned by . . . . this State."[28] The General Provisions section governs Section 2904, the specifications of which are explicitly intended to define the use of the phrase "self insured" in Section 2118.

Section 2118, therefore, does not apply to cars owned by the State, including to the State-owned police car involved in this matter. The Insurance Coverage Office was able to file a claim in any court of competent jurisdiction, [29] and its claim for trespass filed in the Justice of the Peace Court was proper. The matter is hereby REVERSED and REMANDED to the Court of Common Pleas for proceedings in accordance herewith.

Richard R. Cooch, R.J.


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