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Blue Ridge Auto Auction v. Acceptance Indemnity Insurance Company, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

October 24, 2017

BLUE RIDGE AUTO AUCTION
v.
ACCEPTANCE INDEMNITY INSURANCE COMPANY, INC.

          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         Blue Ridge Auto Auction filed this action against Acceptance Indemnity Insurance Company, Inc. because it failed to defend Blue Ridge in certain personal injury actions and failed to pay the resulting claims. Blue Ridge and Acceptance Indemnity sought a preliminary determination of whether the claims were covered by an insurance policy Acceptance Indemnity had issued to a third party. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on the issue, and the trial court ruled in favor of Acceptance Indemnity, finding no coverage. We agree with Blue Ridge that coverage is provided by an exception to an exclusion in the policy. So we reverse the trial court's grant of Acceptance Indemnity's motion for summary judgment and denial of Blue Ridge's motion for summary judgment.

         1. Facts.

         Summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. OCGA § 9-11-56 (c). We review the grant or denial of a motion for summary judgment de novo, "and we view the evidence, and all reasonable conclusions and inferences drawn from it, in the light most favorable to the nonmovant." Matjoulis v. Integon Gen. Ins. Corp., 226 Ga.App. 459 (1) (486 S.E.2d 684) (1997) (citation omitted).

         Here, the facts are largely undisputed. This lawsuit relates to a motor vehicle collision that occurred while Blue Ridge was conducting an automobile auction. A Blue Ridge employee was driving a car that struck many people attending the auction. The car was owned by Acceptance Indemnity's insured, Tommy Nobis Foundation, Inc., a charitable organization that operates a vehicle donation program. Individuals and companies donate used motor vehicles to Tommy Nobis. Tommy Nobis then uses auto auction companies to sell the vehicles. Tommy Nobis uses the net proceeds from the auto sales for charitable purposes. Since Tommy Nobis Foundation began the vehicle donation program, Tommy Nobis Foundation has been licensed by the state of Georgia as a used motor vehicle dealer, but Tommy Nobis does not directly sell vehicles.

         The Blue Ridge employee involved in the collision said that the car's accelerator stuck, which caused him to lose control, crash into a closed garage door, and drive into a building, where he struck a large number of people at the auction. A number of lawsuits were filed against Blue Ridge, and several resulted in judgments against Blue Ridge.

         Blue Ridge asserted that the claims against it were covered by the insurance policy Acceptance Indemnity had issued to Tommy Nobis Foundation. Acceptance Indemnity denied coverage, leading to the instant lawsuit. The trial court ruled that the claims were not covered by the policy. Blue Ridge appealed.

         2. The insurance policy.

         Blue Ridge argues that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to Acceptance Indemnity because Blue Ridge was an insured under the policy. We find that language in the policy crucial to the determination of whether Blue Ridge was an insured - the phrase "garage business" - is ambiguous in the context of this case. Because we must construe ambiguities against the insurer, we agree with Blue Ridge that it was an insured under the policy.

At the outset, we note that insurance in Georgia is a matter of contract, and this [c]ourt has long held that such contract disputes are well suited for adjudication by summary judgment because construction of a contract is ordinarily a matter of law for the court. And in construing a contract, we must first decide whether the language is clear and unambiguous. . . . [A]s is true with all contracts, unambiguous terms in an insurance policy require no construction, and their plain meaning will be given full effect, regardless of whether they might be of benefit to the insurer, or be of detriment to an insured. Thus, if the language is unambiguous, the court simply enforces the contract according to its clear terms; the contract alone is looked to for its meaning.
But if a contract is ambiguous, the court must apply the rules of contract construction to resolve the ambiguity. And contractual provisions are ambiguous when they are susceptible to more than one meaning, even if each meaning is logical and reasonable. Indeed, a contract is ambiguous if the words leave the intent of the parties in question - i.e., that intent is uncertain, unclear, or is open to various interpretations.
In cases of ambiguity, there are three well-known rules of contract construction that apply: (1) ambiguities are strictly construed against the insurer as the drafter; (2) exclusions from coverage the insurer seeks to invoke are strictly construed; and (3) the contract is to be read in accordance with the reasonable expectations of the insured when possible. Indeed, when a term of a policy of insurance is susceptible to two or more constructions, even when such multiple constructions are all logical and reasonable, such term is ambiguous and will be strictly construed against the insurer as the drafter and in favor of the insured. Furthermore, exceptions and exclusions to coverage must be narrowly and strictly construed against the insurer and forgivingly construed in favor of the insured to afford coverage.

Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Neisler, 334 Ga.App. 284, 286-287 (1) (779 S.E.2d 55) (2015) (citations, punctuation, and emphasis omitted). We turn to the policy provisions at issue ...


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