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Sessoms v. Richmond

Superior Court of Delaware

December 26, 2017

ERNEST D. SESSOMS, Plaintiff,
v.
TASIA RICHMOND, and CITIZENS UNITED RECIPROCAL EXCHANGE, Defendants.

         Defendant Citizens United Reciprocal Exchange's Motion to Dismiss GRANTED

         Plaintiffs Motion for Summary Judgment DENIED

          Michael D. Bednash, Esquire, The Law Office of Michael D. Bednash, Attorney for Plaintiff.

          Emily K. Silverstein, Esquire, Marks, O'Neill, O'Brien, Doherty & Kelly, P.C. Attorney for Citizens United Reciprocal Exchange.

          CORRECTED MEMORANDUM OPINION

          William C. Carpenter, Jr. Judge.

         Citizens United Reciprocal Exchange ("CURE" or "Defendant") moves to dismiss Ernest D. Sessoms' ("Plaintiff) Amended Complaint pursuant to Delaware Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(2). For the following reasons Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Count III (Declaratory Judgment) of the Amended Complaint will be GRANTED. To the extent Plaintiff seeks summary judgment on Count II (Negligence), the Motion is DENIED. Further, the Court notes that Count I of Plaintiff s Amended Complaint simply sets forth the jurisdictional basis for the litigation but lacks any cause of action.[1]

         I. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On April 27, 2015, Plaintiff was injured in a motor vehicle accident (the "Accident") while riding as a passenger in a car owned by Tamika Brown ("Brown").[2] Tasia J. Richmond, a New Jersey resident, ("Richmond") was said to be driving "in a negligent and careless manner, [when she] disregarded [the] red light"[3] at the intersection of 29th Street and Jefferson Street and collided with Brown's vehicle in Wilmington, Delaware. Plaintiff suffered neck and back injuries as well as "pain and suffering, and mental distress" from the collision.[4] At the time of the Accident, Richmond was insured by an automobile policy (the "Policy") issued by CURE, a New Jersey based Insurance Company.[5]

         Sometime after the Accident, CURE began to investigate the pending insurance claim. However, after many unsuccessful requests for information and assistance from Richmond, CURE filed an action in the New Jersey Superior Court seeking to enforce the contractual cooperation requirement in Richmond's insurance policy.[6] On October 2, 2015, Richmond was ordered by the Court to submit to an Examination Under Oath in New Jersey within twenty days from the court order ("Order").[7] The Order also stated that failure to submit to an Examination Under Oath was "a material breach of her contract...and [shall relieve] CURE [of the responsibility] to afford any benefits to defendant under its policy...."[8] Richmond subsequently failed to submit for an Examination Under Oath, and on November 13, 2015, CURE denied coverage, holding Richmond to be uncooperative during the investigation of her claim.[9]

         Because of CURE's refusal to provide coverage for the Accident, Plaintiff commenced the instant litigation on March 15, 2017. On May 10, 2017, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint asserting that Richmond's negligence proximately caused the Accident and Plaintiffs injuries.[10] Additionally, the Amended Complaint asserted that Richmond was insured by CURE at the time of the Accident[11] and therefore CURE is obligated to indemnify Richmond and provide minimum coverage for the Accident.[12] Further, the Amended Complaint seeks both general and special damages against Richmond, declaratory judgment against CURE, costs, and interests, as well as attorney's fees.[13]

         In response to Plaintiffs Amended Complaint, Defendant CURE moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rules 12(b)(2), for lack of personal jurisdiction. Plaintiff opposes such motion and in its response also requested the Court to grant summary judgment. CURE's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Amended Complaint was heard in this Court on August 23, 2017. This is the Court's decision on the Motion to Dismiss and Plaintiffs request for summary judgment.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         On a defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(2) for lack of personal jurisdiction, the plaintiff "bear[s] the burden to articulate a non-frivolous basis for this court's assertion of jurisdiction."[14] The plaintiff can satisfy this burden "by making a. prima facie showing that jurisdiction is conferred by statute."[15] Although the factual record is read in the light most favorable to the plaintiff in ruling on the motion, "the plaintiff must plead specific facts and cannot rely on mere conclusory assertions."[16] Additionally, the Court must answer two legal questions. "First, it must determine whether jurisdiction is appropriate under Delaware's long-arm statute. And, second, it must evaluate whether asserting such jurisdiction would offend the Due Process Clause of the Constitution."[17]

         III. DISCUSSION

         It is important to clearly set forth what is being requested in this litigation since how it is characterized results in different outcomes. This Court has made it very clear in State Farm v. Dann that a "single, specific contact, such as a tort committed in Delaware, has been held sufficient to confer personal jurisdiction over the tortfeasor and his [her] insurer in the Delaware Courts." [18] Automobile insurance companies like CURE cannot avoid liability by merely claiming no contacts in Delaware. They waived that right when they issued the automobile policy with full recognition that the insurer would not limit their travel to a single state. Having to respond to insurance claims for accidents in another state by the insurers is not only foreseeable but is an expected outcome in this line of business.

         However, the issue the parties are raising is different in that the Plaintiff appears to be requesting the Court to determine the contractual obligation between Richmond and CURE by finding the insurance carrier has an obligation to defend Richmond and pay coverage under the insurance policy. As such, the declaratory judgment Count found in Count III of the Complaint raises a different issue related to the insurance contract and not the accident itself. This places the issue of whether the long arm statute is applicable in a totally different light. As a result of the above, the Court will turn its attention to whether the State of Delaware has proper jurisdiction to make a declaratory judgment regarding CURE'S obligation to provide coverage under its policy.

         a. Declaratory Judgment

         The Court must conduct a two-part analysis in order to determine if a non­resident may be subject to personal jurisdiction by a Delaware court. First, the Court must determine if any of the Delaware Long-Arm Statute provisions are applicable and second, it must determine if imposing Delaware jurisdiction on the non-resident violates the Due Process Clause. Delaware's ...


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