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Crockett v. Shelter Mutual Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Arkansas

December 5, 2019

MARK CROCKETT AND MACON CARTER APPELLANTS
v.
SHELTER MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY APPELLEE

          APPEAL FROM THE PHILLIPS COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT [NO. 54CV-17-36 ] HONORABLE RICHARD L. PROCTOR, JUDGE

          Stoner Law PLLC, by: Kyle Stoner; and David Hodges, for appellants.

          Matthews, Sanders & Sayes, P.A., by: Mel Sayes, for appellee.

          ROBIN F. WYNNE, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE

         Mark Crockett and Macon Carter appeal from an order of the Phillips County Circuit Court granting summary judgment in favor of Shelter Mutual Insurance Company (Shelter) on their claim arising from medical expenses they incurred following an automobile accident. On appeal, appellants contend that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Shelter because the policy language is ambiguous or, alternatively, the policy language is against public policy and should be declared void. Appellants also ask this court to reverse the denial of their motion in limine seeking to exclude evidence of their health insurance or bill reductions by medical providers. We affirm.

         On February 12, 2016, appellants were passengers in a 2014 Nissan Versa that was owned by Johnny Carter and being driven by Frank Ross. The vehicle was involved in an accident. Carter had taken out a policy of insurance on the vehicle with Shelter. The policy contained a provision providing medical-expense benefits of up to $5000 per person. Neither Crockett nor Carter had automobile medical-payment coverage. On March 2, 2017, appellants filed suit against Shelter, contending that they were entitled to medical benefits under Carter's policy with Shelter and that Shelter had "failed, refused and neglected in bad faith" to make payments in violation of Arkansas Code Annotated section 23-89-202. Crockett alleged that he had incurred medical expenses in the amount of $4, 165.80, and that Shelter had paid only $2, 706.68 and refused to pay the balance. Carter alleged that he had incurred medical expenses in the amount of $10, 443.47, that Shelter had only paid $915 in benefits, and that Shelter refused to pay the balance up to the policy limit of $5000. In addition to payment of their medical expenses, appellants sought a statutory penalty, fees, and interest.

         Shelter answered the complaint and subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment. In the motion, Shelter contended that appellants' medical providers had been paid at a reduced rate that satisfied appellants' medical expenses in full. Appellants opposed the motion for summary judgment and filed a cross-motion for partial summary judgment. They contended that they were entitled to additional funds under the policy's medical-benefits provision because the language of the policy was ambiguous, and that the policy language was void as contrary to public policy. Appellants also filed a motion in limine seeking to prevent Shelter from making any references at trial to payments it had made.

         The trial court held a hearing on the parties' various pretrial motions. On March 7, 2018, the trial court entered an order denying appellants' motion for partial summary judgment and motion in limine and granting Shelter's motion for summary judgment. This appeal followed.

         The law is well settled regarding the standard of review used by this court in reviewing a grant of summary judgment. Muccio v. Hunt, 2016 Ark. 178, 490 S.W.3d 310. A trial court will grant summary judgment only when it is apparent that no genuine issues of material fact exist requiring litigation and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. The burden of proof shifts to the opposing party once the moving party establishes a prima facie entitlement to summary judgment; the opposing party must demonstrate the existence of a material issue of fact. Id. After reviewing the evidence, the trial court should deny summary judgment if, under the evidence, reasonable minds could reach different conclusions from the same undisputed facts. Id.

         Appellants argue that the trial court erred by granting summary judgment in favor of Shelter because the applicable policy language is ambiguous. Language is ambiguous if there is doubt or uncertainty as to its meaning and it is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. Smith v. Prudential Prop. & Cas. Ins. Co., 340 Ark. 335, 10 S.W.3d 846 (2000). Ordinarily, the question of whether the language of an insurance policy is ambiguous is one of law to be resolved by the court. Western World Ins. Co. Inc. v. Branch, 332 Ark. 427, 965 S.W.2d 760. When a contract is unambiguous, its construction is a question of law for this court. Id.; Unigard Sec. Ins. Co. v. Murphy Oil USA, Inc., 331 Ark. 211, 962 S.W.2d 735 (1998). When contracting parties express their intention in a written instrument in clear and unambiguous language, it is the court's duty to construe the writing in accordance with the plain meaning of the language employed. Green v. Ferguson, 263 Ark. 601, 567 S.W.2d 89 (1978).

         Part II, Coverage C of the insurance policy states "we will pay the reasonable charges for necessary goods and services for the treatment of bodily injury sustained by an insured." (emphasis original). The policy defines "reasonable charges" as the lesser of:

(a) The amount for which we can discharge the insured's entire obligation to the person providing the goods and services; or
(b) The charges incurred for goods and services that in our judgment, are within the range of charges for the same or similar goods and services, in the geographic area where the services are rendered or the goods are purchased.

(Emphasis original.) The policy defines "we" to mean the Shelter Company providing the ...


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