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City Grill Hospitality Group, Inc. v. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

April 14, 2014

CITY GRILL HOSPITALITY GROUP, INC., Plaintiff,
v.
NATIONWIDE MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Defendant.

ORDER

JAMES C. FOX, Sr., District Judge.

This matter is before the court on the parties' cross motions for summary judgment [DE-27, -31]. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for resolution. For the reasons that follow, Nationwide's motion is ALLOWED in its entirety and the claims for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing (part of third claim for relief), breach of the unfair and deceptive practices act (fourth claim for relief), and bad faith refusal to settle[1] are DISMISSED. City Grill concedes that Nationwide is entitled to summary judgment on the claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, conversion, and breach of fiduciary duty and those claims are also DISMISSED. The parties consent that the breach of contract claim (and presumably Nationwide's related counterclaims, which are not addressed in the motions for summary judgment) are for trial. City Grill's motion for summary judgment and for suppression of Nationwide's expert reports is DENIED.

RELEVANT FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The court relates the facts in the light most favorable to City Grill. The court notes that the facts are vigorously contested and Nationwide disputes much of City Grill's version of events. City Grill owns a Miami Subs restaurant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which was partially destroyed in a fire on January 24, 2012. After an investigation, Nationwide denied coverage on the policy for two reasons: (1) it determined the fire was intentionally set; and (2) one of City Grill's individual owners, Dimitrios Diamantopoulos, allegedly made material misrepresentations during the investigation. City Grill thereafter initiated this suit, alleging claims for, inter alia, breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and breach of North Carolina's unfair and deceptive trade practices act.

On the morning of January 24, 2012, Diamantopoulos arrived at the restaurant at approximately 8:15 a.m. According to Diamantopoulos, he collected the previous night's cash proceeds and promptly left to meet a friend for coffee and deposit the money at the bank. The first 911 call reporting the fire came in at approximately 8:40 a.m. The primary dispute in this case is whether Diamantopoulos intentionally set the fire during the period of time between 8:15 and 8:40 or whether an electrical failure caused the fire. Although Diamantopoulos's precise whereabouts after leaving the restaurant are contested, he apparently returned to the restaurant after receiving a call that the building was on fire.

The Fayetteville Fire Department arrived and promptly extinguished the fire. Because the Fayetteville Police Department does not employ fire investigation specialists, the police department contacted the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to investigate the fire for possible arson. Special Agent Chadwick Royal of the SBI initially found that the cause of the fire was undetermined. Royal based his conclusion in part on two printed circuit boards ("PCBs")[2] found near the origin of the fire, which he concluded could not be ruled out as a possible ignition source.

Nationwide, City Grill's insurer, also investigated the fire and it hired Donan Engineering to complete the fire origin and cause investigation. Donan assigned Hunter B. Lacy as the primary investigator and the investigation took place from January 26, 2012 through February 2, 2012. Although Lacy informed Diamantopoulos that Lacy was in charge of the premises during the investigation, Diamantopoulos had access to the building throughout the investigation. In fact, Diamantopoulos met Lacy each morning to unlock the building. Lacy determined that an electrical engineer should investigate possible electrical causes and Nationwide hired Henry B. Martini, also an employee of Donan Engineering, for that purpose.

After ruling out all other potential causes, Martini and Lacy determined that the fire was intentionally set. Although Special Agent Royal notified Martini and Lacy that the PCBs were a potential ignition source, Martini and Lacy allegedly ruled out all possible electrical sources.[3] Martini and Lacy's claim reports to Nationwide did not address the PCBs as potential ignition sources of the fire, though Martini's report did include a photograph of the PCBs. After City Grill initiated this lawsuit and raised the possibility that the PCBs caused the fire, Martini and Lacy submitted litigation reports noting that they investigated the PCBs and ruled them out as possible ignition sources.

The PCBs have disappeared. Both Martini and Lacy have submitted sworn statements that they left the PCBs in the custody and control of City Grill after completing their investigations. City Grill's principals do not know what happened to the PCBs after the investigation, though there is some indication in the briefing that the restaurant was cleaned out before City Grill's experts had an opportunity to investigate the fire. See Nationwide's Mem. in Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. for Summ. J. [DE-46] at 6 ("The first time that Nationwide or its experts knew that the PCBs were missing was November 2012, during a subsequent visit to the loss site after this lawsuit had been filed. City Grill had allowed the entire building to be stripped clean, which included the destruction or loss of the PCBs."). City Grill's experts all opine that they cannot determine the precise cause of the fire without physically examining the PCBs. Although City Grill's experts cannot rule out arson as a potential cause, they also cannot rule out the possibility that the PCBs caused the fire.

Because Lacy and Martini's reports indicated the fire was intentionally set and (in Nationwide's view) Diamantopoulos likely started it, Nationwide denied the claim. Nationwide's denial notice rested on two independent grounds: (1) the policy exclusion for dishonest or criminal acts and (2) the policy exclusion for concealment, misrepresentation, or fraud. As to the second ground, Nationwide maintains that Diamantopoulos made material misrepresentations regarding his whereabouts and conduct immediately prior to the fire during the course of Nationwide's investigation. City Grill's position is that Nationwide failed to properly investigate and rule out the PCBs and, as such, improperly denied the claim based on an incomplete investigation. After the denial, the parties were unable to resolve the dispute and this lawsuit followed.

DISCUSSION

A. Standard of Review

On a motion for summary judgment, the court must examine the evidence presented by both parties and determine if there is a need for trial. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Greater Balt. Ctr. for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. v. Mayor & City Council of Balt., 721 F.3d 264, 283 (4th Cir. 2013). The court examines "whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-53 (1986). Where the moving party shows that the evidence is so one-sided that it should prevail as a matter of law, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to come forward with affidavits, depositions, answers to interrogatories, or other evidence demonstrating that there is a genuine issue of material fact that requires trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324-25 (1986); Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587; Pension Ben. Guar. Corp. v. Beverly, 404 F.3d 243, 246-47 (4th Cir. 2005). An issue of fact is genuine if a reasonable jury could find for the nonmoving party. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248. A fact is material if proof of the ...


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