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Thompson v. State Farm Automobile Insurance Co.

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 20, 2018

DEREK THOMPSON, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of Cynthia Thompson, Plaintiff,



         This matter is before the Court on Defendant State Farm's Motion for Summary Judgment [Docket No. 58]. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case arises out of a dispute over underinsured motorist (“UIM”) benefits. On August 11, 2013, Cynthia Thompson was a passenger in a motor vehicle accident with an underinsured driver. Docket No. 58 at 2, ¶ 3. Ms. Thompson claimed that she suffered injuries, damages, and losses as a result of the accident. Id., ¶ 4. On December 3, 2013, the underinsured driver's insurance carrier paid Ms. Thompson $25, 000, the limits of the driver's insurance policy, to settle her claim for liability. Id., ¶ 6. On February 5, 2014, Ms. Thompson died in her sleep. Id., ¶ 7. Her autopsy revealed that she had a 50 mcg/hr fentanyl transdermal patch on her upper back. Id., ¶ 9. The postmortem examination report further stated that Ms. Thompson's lungs showed evidence of pulmonary congestion and edema and that she had multiple drugs in her system, including diazepam and fentanyl. Id., ¶ 10. The Certificate of Death lists “Respiratory Arrest” and “Multiple prescription drug intoxication” as the “Immediate Cause” of Ms. Thompson's death. Id. at 3, ¶ 12. It is undisputed that Ms. Thompson was not prescribed fentanyl at any time between August 11, 2013 and February 5, 2014. Id. at 2-3, ¶¶ 5, 13.

         At some time before August 11, 2013, defendant issued four automobile insurance policies, each with a $100, 000 UIM limit, to Ms. Thompson's parents. Id. at 3, ¶ 17; Docket No. 4 at 4, ¶ 43. Those policies were in effect at the time of the accident that injured Ms. Thompson. Docket No. 58 at 3, ¶ 17.[1] On June 18, 2014, plaintiff's counsel informed defendant that plaintiff would be pursuing a wrongful death claim as well as a survival action on behalf of Ms. Thompson's estate. Id., ¶ 14. On July 31, 2014, defendant advised counsel that, while it was continuing to investigate plaintiff's insurance claims, defendant did not have sufficient documentation to determine whether Ms. Thompson's death was a direct result of the motor vehicle accident. Id. at 4, ¶ 20. Plaintiff was appointed personal representative of Ms. Thompson's estate on March 9, 2015. Id. at 4, ¶ 22. On April 1, 2015, defendant informed plaintiff that it had offered to settle his survival claim for $69, 700, but still needed documentation showing that Ms. Thompson's death was the result of the motor vehicle accident in order to determine whether plaintiff was entitled to additional benefits. Id., ¶ 24. On October 26, 2015, defendant sent plaintiff another letter informing him that, because it had not received additional documentation regarding the cause of Ms. Thompson's death, it would not pay any benefits beyond the $69, 700 that was offered to settle the survival claim. Id. at 5, ¶ 25.

         Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on April 5, 2016 in the District Court for Mesa County, Colorado. See Docket No. 4 at 1. On May 20, 2015, defendant removed the case to this Court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction. See Docket No. 1 at 1. In his amended complaint, plaintiff asserts Colorado state law claims for: (1) declaratory judgment; (2) breach of contract; (3) common law bad faith breach of an insurance contract; and (4) unreasonable denial of UIM benefits under Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 10-3-1115 and 10-3-1116. Docket No. 4 at 6-12. Defendant moved for summary judgment on all claims on June 8, 2017. Docket No. 58. On June 29, 2017, plaintiff filed a preliminary response to defendant's motion as well as a motion for relief under Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(d), requesting that the Court defer ruling on the motion for summary judgment to allow plaintiff additional time to conduct discovery. Docket Nos. 59, 60. After the close of expert discovery on January 15, 2018, the Court ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs regarding the motion for summary judgment. Docket No. 99. Plaintiff filed his supplemental response on January 30, 2018, Docket No. 109, to which defendant replied on February 13, 2018. Docket No. 110.


         Summary judgment is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 when the “movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-50 (1986). A disputed fact is “material” if under the relevant substantive law it is essential to proper disposition of the claim. Wright v. Abbott Labs., Inc., 259 F.3d 1226, 1231-32 (10th Cir. 2001). Only disputes over material facts can create a genuine issue for trial and preclude summary judgment. Faustin v. City & Cty. of Denver, 423 F.3d 1192, 1198 (10th Cir. 2005). An issue is “genuine” if the evidence is such that it might lead a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Allen v. Muskogee, 119 F.3d 837, 839 (10th Cir. 1997).

         Where “the moving party does not bear the ultimate burden of persuasion at trial, it may satisfy its burden at the summary judgment stage by identifying a lack of evidence for the nonmovant on an essential element of the nonmovant's claim.” Bausman v. Interstate Brands Corp., 252 F.3d 1111, 1115 (10th Cir. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 671 (10th Cir. 1998)). “Once the moving party meets this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to demonstrate a genuine issue for trial on a material matter.” Concrete Works of Colo., Inc. v. City & Cty. of Denver, 36 F.3d 1513, 1518 (10th Cir. 1994). The nonmoving party may not rest solely on the allegations in the pleadings, but instead must designate “specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted). “To avoid summary judgment, the nonmovant must establish, at a minimum, an inference of the presence of each element essential to the case.” Bausman, 252 F.3d at 1115. When reviewing a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Declaratory Judgment and Breach of Contract

         In his first claim for relief, plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that “he is entitled to UIM benefits under the State Farm policies, in an amount to be determined at trial.” Docket No. 4 at 7, ¶ 69. In his second claim, plaintiff contends that defendant breached the terms of the relevant insurance policies by refusing to pay plaintiff UM/UIM benefits for Ms. Thompson's death. See Id. at 7-10, ¶¶ 73-103. Defendant seeks summary judgment on both claims, arguing that plaintiff has failed to present any evidence establishing that the August 11, 2013 automobile accident proximately caused Ms. Thompson's death. See Docket No. 58 at 8-9.

         The parties have not included copies of the relevant insurance policies in the summary judgment record. However, they appear to agree that Colorado tort law governs the causation issue in this case. See Docket No. 58 at 8-9 (applying Colorado tort law on proximate causation); Docket No. 59 at 12-14 (same). Applying Colorado tort law to the issue of proximate causation comports with Colorado's uninsured/underinsured motorist (“UM/UIM”) benefits statute, which provides:

No automobile liability or motor vehicle liability policy insuring against loss resulting from liability imposed by law for bodily injury or death suffered by any person arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of a motor vehicle shall be delivered or issued for delivery in this state with respect to any motor vehicle licensed for highway use in this state unless coverage is provided therein or supplemental thereto, in limits for bodily injury or death set forth in section 42-7-103(2), C.R.S., under provisions approved by the commissioner, for the protection of persons insured thereunder who are legally entitled to recover ...

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