HOWARD G. HAMPTON, Plaintiff,
TITAN INDEMNITY COMPANY, Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff,
CHERYL BROWN, Third-Party Defendant.
Submitted: June 5, 2017
Consideration of Defendant/Third-Party Plaintiff's Motion
for Summary Judgment, DENIED.
Consideration of Plaintiff/Third-Party Defendant's Motion
for Summary Judgment, GRANTED.
Patrick Gallagher, Esquire, of Curley, Dodge, Funk &
Street, LLC, of Dover, Delaware. Attorney for Plaintiff &
K. Pearce, Esquire, of Reger, Rizzo & Darnall, L.L.P., of
Wilmington, Delaware. Attorney for Defendant/Third-Party
MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER
L. Medinilla, Judge
case probes the confines of "no-fault" Personal
Injury Protection ("PIP") benefits under
Delaware's Financial Responsibility Law, 21 Del.
C, §2118. It does so in two ways. First, Titan
Indemnity Company ("Titan") contends that,
"what's good for the goose is [not] good for the
gander." Plaintiff Howard Hampton, someone with myriad
convictions for driving under the influence, was injured
while helping his platonic living companion, Third-Party
Defendant Cheryl Brown, extricate her vehicle from a snowy
ditch adjacent their mobile home. While steering her
vehicle-coaxing it forward and backwards out of the ditch-he
was struck by a negligently-operated snow plow traveling in
the opposite direction on the two-lane country road. Were Mr.
Hampton a stranger, a friend, a foe to Ms. Brown, or simply a
Good Samaritan-or anyone else on the planet-he would be
entitled to PIP benefits. But, Titan argues, his unique
status as a "roommate" of the insured's
"household" retroactively voids the insurance
policy, prohibiting him from receiving PIP benefits for his
conclusion begets the second issue: whether Ms. Brown is
responsible for failing to disclose Mr. Hampton as a
"roommate" in a portion of the insurance
application that requested the presence of other
"drivers" in the household. The agent who issued
her the application never asked Ms. Brown about any roommates
with whom she lived. Equally, Ms. Brown did not read the
application before signing it. Remarkably, Titan concedes
that even had the agent been told of Mr. Hampton, she would
not have named him as a driver on the application because he
was unlicensed. Nevertheless, Titan contends that Ms. Brown
materially misrepresented Mr. Hampton's status as a
roommate and potential driver of her vehicle. Titan asks to
declare the policy null and void under 18 Del. C.
§ 2711 as a material misrepresentation.
and Ms. Brown have cross-moved for summary judgment. After
considering the parties' motions, responses, and oral
arguments, the Court finds that the relevant portion of the
insurance contract is fairly susceptible to two different
interpretations: that Mr. Hampton was at once a
"roommate" within the policy's definition of
"household members, " but not a "driver"
as contemplated by the same section of the application. In
light of this ambiguity, the doctrine of contra
proferentem requires the contract be interpreted in
favor of coverage. Therefore, the Court DENIES Titan's
Motion for Summary Judgment and GRANTS Plaintiff/Third-Party
Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment.
AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
underwrites insurance policies underneath the banner of
Nationwide Insurance. It does so through several licensed but
independent insurance agencies.
A to Z
Insurance Company ("A to Z") is one such agency.
The insurance policy at issue in this case was issued to Ms.
Brown by A to Z and underwritten by Titan.
undisputed that Ms. Brown and Mr. Hampton co-inhabit a
double-wide mobile home in Magnolia, Delaware. They pay
separate rent to the landlord of the trailer, a relative of
Ms. Brown's. They have their own private space, including
their respective bathrooms and bedrooms. They share a common
kitchen, living room, and dining room. They share utility
expenses. Mr. Hampton performs yard work and household
maintenance at the residence as a credit towards his rent.
They purchase their own groceries and cook their own food.
The two rarely speak to one another.
January 24, 2016, Ms. Brown was traveling home in her insured
automobile. Her car became stuck in a snow ditch adjacent the
road within two to three driveways of her residence. She
called Mr. Hampton to help extricate the vehicle from the
ditch. Mr. Hampton looked out of his trailer and walked over
to assist her.
first, Mr. Hampton and his sister-a passenger in the vehicle
at the time it became stuck-pushed from behind the vehicle
with Ms. Brown in the driver's seat. Their attempts
failed. As cars in her original direction of travel began to
stop and wait to pass, Mr. Hampton replaced Ms. Brown at the
wheel. While he tried in vain to move the vehicle out of the
ditch, a passing snow plow careened into the car and injured
him in the collision.
the police arrived, Mr. Hampton was cited for driving without
a license and without proof of insurance. Mr. Hampton has not
had a driver's license for fifteen years, primarily as a
result of Driving while Under the Influence ("DUI")
offenses. In 2014, he was convicted of his fifth DUI, and was
on probation at the time Ms. Brown applied for insurance
through A to Z.
month before the accident, on December 23, 2015, Ms. Brown
sought to insure two of her vehicles and met with Kathleen
Joyner, a licensed insurance agent at A to Z. The agent began
the application by asking Ms. Brown a series of eligibility
questions. She did not read the application verbatim and
inputted Ms. Brown's verbal responses into her computer.
After the interview, Ms. Joyner printed the three-page
application for signature. Without reading the application,
Ms. Brown signed the third page of the application, attesting
to the veracity of her responses.
crucial portion of the application was a section that
appeared in the upper half of the first page, entitled
"DRIVER INFORMATION:' This section reads:
NOTE: All household members age 15 or older, including
spouse, domestic partner, roommate(s), as well as those
drivers outside the household to whom the insured auto(s) is
furnished or available for his or her use, including military
and children away at college, must be identified
the insured and the agent agree that, as to this section of
the application, Ms. Brown was not asked if she had a
roommate. Ms. Brown testified that she recalls being asked
only about other "household members, " which she
interpreted to refer to those members of her
"household" whom she considered her dependents. To
her, this meant her two adolescent sons and not Mr. Hampton.
However, at the time of the application, neither son was
living in her home-they had left the residence as late as
July 2015. Nevertheless, one of her sons is listed on the
final page of the application as an excluded driver, because
"he [is] no longer in [the]
Titan agent, Ms. Joyner stated that she did not read the
entire section to Ms. Brown because she asks the applicant to
review the information provided at the conclusion of the
interview. Also, Ms. Joyner stated in her deposition that she
did not interpret the driver's section of the
application to mean that the applicant is required to list
unlicensed drivers, such as Mr. Hampton. As such, the record
clearly establishes that had Ms. Brown disclosed Mr. Hampton
on this portion of the application, the agent would
not have included him as a driver because he had
suffered a loss of license.
result of the January 24, 2016 accident, Mr. Hampton
submitted medical bills to Titan for reimbursement under the
policy's $15, 000 PIP limits. Titan responded that it was
investigating the circumstances of the accident on the basis
of Ms. Brown's omission regarding Mr. Hampton's
occupancy of the shared residence. Before this investigation
was completed, Mr. Hampton filed the present suit seeking a
determination that Titan is obligated to pay his PIP bills.
Complaint was filed on March 21, 2016 and amended on May 19,
2016. Titan then filed a Third Party Complaint against Ms.
Brown on May 24, 2016. Discovery in the original action is
stayed pending the resolution of the Third Party Complaint.
At the close of discovery in the latter case, the parties
stipulated to present the pending cross-motions for summary
parties' motions were filed on March 31, 2017. Responses
were filed on May 8. Reply briefs were submitted on May 25.
The parties presented their oral arguments on the motions at