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Sorensen v. State Farm Automobile Insurance Co.

July 20, 2010

VANESSA SORENSEN, PETITIONER,
v.
STATE FARM AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, AS SUBROGEE, RESPONDENT.



Petition for Writ of Review District Court of Natrona County, The Honorable David B. Park, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kite, Chief Justice.

Original Proceeding

Before KITE, C.J., and GOLDEN, HILL, VOIGT*fn1, and BURKE, JJ.

[¶1] Vanessa Sorensen co-owned a vehicle with Jean C. Larramendy III. Jean Larramendy Jr. was driving the vehicle when he collided with another vehicle being driven by State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Company's (State Farm) insured. The Sorensen/Larramendy vehicle was uninsured at the time.

[¶2] State Farm filed a complaint against Jean Larramendy III, Jean Larramendy Jr. and Ms. Sorensen.*fn2 As to Ms. Sorensen, State Farm alleged that she violated Wyoming law by failing to maintain insurance on her vehicle, its insureds sustained damages as a result and it was subrogated to its insureds' right to recover the damages from Ms. Sorensen. Ms. Sorensen moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that there is no common law duty to insure a vehicle and Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 31-4-103 (LexisNexis 2009), the criminal statute requiring motor vehicle owners to maintain liability insurance, does not create a cause of action for negligent failure to maintain insurance. The district court denied the motion, concluding § 31-4-103 establishes the minimum standard of care and imposed a duty on Ms. Sorensen to maintain proper insurance. Ms. Sorensen filed a petition for writ of review of the district court's order denying the motion, which this Court granted. We reverse.

ISSUES

[¶3] In her petition, Ms. Sorensen asked this Court to review the following issues:

A. Whether Wyoming recognizes a cause of action, enforceable by private parties, for negligent failure to maintain liability insurance on a motor vehicle; and

B. Whether, as a matter of law, the failure to maintain liability insurance on a motor vehicle could be a legal cause of injuries and damages suffered in a motor vehicle crash.

FACTS

[¶4] On December 3, 2004, the vehicle owned by Ms. Sorensen collided with the vehicle owned by State Farm's insureds. Ms. Sorensen was not in the vehicle at the time. Her vehicle was uninsured. State Farm's insureds sustained $36,521.61 in damages as a result of the collision. Under the terms of the uninsured motorist provision of its policy, State Farm was obligated to pay its insureds that amount.

[¶5] State Farm, as subrogee to its insureds' rights, then filed its complaint against Ms. Sorensen alleging that she was negligent in failing to insure the vehicle as required by Wyoming law, her negligence was a direct and proximate cause of its insureds' damages and it was subrogated to its insureds' right to recover the damages from Ms. Sorensen. Ms. Sorensen moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that, first, § 31-4-103 does not create a private right of action against the owner of an uninsured vehicle for damages sustained in a collision caused by the driver of the uninsured vehicle and, second, her failure to maintain insurance coverage on the vehicle was not the proximate cause of any damages sustained. State Farm asserted in response that § 31-4-103 created a private right of action for parties who sustain damages in collisions with uninsured vehicles, including insurance companies as subrogee of the party sustaining damages.

[¶6] After a hearing, the district court denied the motion to dismiss, holding that § 31-4-103 establishes the minimum standard of care and imposed a duty on Ms. Sorensen to maintain insurance on the vehicle involved in the collision; therefore, State Farm's complaint stated a claim upon which relief could be granted. Upon entry of the order denying the motion to dismiss, Ms. Sorensen filed a motion pursuant to W.R.A.P. 11 requesting the district court to certify the question to this Court. The district court denied the motion. Ms. Sorensen then filed a petition for a writ of review in this Court pursuant to W.R.A.P. 13. We granted the petition, finding that the questions raised in the petition involve controlling questions of law as to which there are substantial bases for differences of opinion and in which an immediate appeal from the dismissal order may materially advance resolution of the litigation. W.R.A.P. 13.02.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

[¶7] The district court denied Ms. Sorensen's motion to dismiss pursuant to W.R.C.P. 12(b)(6), finding that State Farm stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. Our standards for reviewing rulings on Rule 12(b)(6) motions are well known:

(1) we accept the facts stated in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the [plaintiff]; (2). [dismissal is appropriate]. if it is certain from the face of the complaint that the [plaintiff] cannot assert any facts that would entitle him to relief; (3) we employ the same standards and examine the same materials as did the district court; and (4) such review is de novo.

Dowlin v. Dowlin, 2007 WY 114, ¶ 6, 162 P.3d 1202, 1204 (Wyo. 2007), quoting Becker v. Mason, 2006 WY 143, ¶ 5, 145 P.3d 1268, 1270 (Wyo. 2006).

DISCUSSION

[¶8] The issue before us is whether a cause of action exists in Wyoming for negligent failure to maintain liability insurance. More specifically, we are asked to decide whether a party who alleges that he sustained damages in a collision caused by the driver of an uninsured vehicle has, in addition to his cause of action against the negligent driver, a cause of action in tort against the vehicle's owner for negligently failing to maintain liability insurance. The elements necessary to maintain a negligence claim in Wyoming are well-established. A plaintiff must prove: 1) the defendant was under a duty of care to protect the plaintiff from injury or loss; 2) the defendant breached the duty owed to the plaintiff; 3) the plaintiff suffered actual injury or loss; and 4) the defendant's breach of the duty proximately caused the plaintiff's injury or loss. Andersen v. Two Dot Ranch, Inc., 2002 WY 105, ¶ 11, 49 P.3d 1011, 1014 (Wyo. 2002).

[¶9] In the present case, the duty alleged to have been owed was that of Ms. Sorensen to members of the general public to maintain liability insurance on her vehicle. It is undisputed that she did not maintain the required insurance; therefore, if a duty is found, its breach is established. The injury or loss alleged to have been proximately caused by the breach of the alleged duty is the $36,521.61 in property damage State Farm's insureds sustained in the collision caused by the driver of Ms. Sorensen's vehicle. Having paid its insureds that amount under the uninsured motorist provision of their insurance policy, State Farm seeks to be subrogated to any right they would have had to recover their damages from Ms. Sorensen because of her failure to maintain insurance.

[¶10] Considering the elements necessary to maintain a negligence action in the context of this case, in order to withstand dismissal of its complaint, State Farm had to establish that: 1) Ms. Sorensen was under a duty of care to protect its insureds from being unable to obtain compensation for their damages caused in the collision through an insurance policy covering her vehicle; 2) she breached the duty by failing to maintain liability insurance; 3) State Farm's insureds suffered the damages alleged; and 4) Ms. Sorensen's breach of the duty to maintain liability insurance proximately caused the insureds' damages. We begin our discussion with consideration of whether State Farm established the first element of its claim-that Ms. Sorensen was under a duty of care to protect its insureds from being unable to obtain compensation for their damages through an insurance policy covering her vehicle.

[¶11] The question of whether a duty exists and, if so, the scope of the duty is a question of law for the court. Andersen, ¶ 11, 49 P.3d at 1014, citing Kobos By and Through Kobos v. Everts, 768 P.2d 534, 541 (Wyo. 1989). Absent a duty, there is no actionable negligence claim. Bowen v. Smith, 838 P.2d 186, 198 (Wyo. 1992). A duty may arise by contract, statute or the common law. Tidwell v. HOM, Inc., 896 P.2d 1322, 1325 (Wyo. 1995), citing Brubaker v. Glenrock Lodge Int'l Order of Odd Fellows, 526 P.2d 52, 58 (Wyo. 1974).

[¶12] There is no contract between Ms. Sorensen and State Farm's insureds giving rise to a duty. The parties agree also that there is no recognized common law duty to maintain insurance. Thus, we are concerned here with whether the duty asserted arises by statute or whether the common law should recognize such a duty because the relationship of the parties is such that the law will impose an obligation on vehicle owners like Ms. Sorensen to act reasonably for the protection of others like State Farm's insureds. Hatton v. Energy Elec. Co., 2006 WY 151, ¶ 10, 148 P.3d 8, 13 (Wyo. 2006), quoting Thomas By Thomas v. South Cheyenne Water and Sewer Dist., 702 P.2d 1303, 1307 (Wyo. 1985). In deciding this issue, we note that Wyoming does not have an "owner liability" statute as some states do establishing liability on the part of a vehicle owner for the negligence of anyone operating it with the owner's express or implied permission. Gill v. Schaap, 601 P.2d 545, 547 (Wyo. 1979). Also, this Court has said the owner of a ...


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