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Sigmon v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Co.

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

August 19, 2019

Joey Sigmon, Plaintiff,
v.
State Farm Mutual Automobile Company, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, and State Farm Insurance Company, Defendant.

          ORDER

          KENNETH D. BELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on the parties' cross Motions for Summary Judgment (Doc. Nos. 34, 37). The Court has carefully reviewed the motions and considered the parties' briefs and exhibits.[1] As discussed below, the Court will DENY both parties' motions for summary judgment because there are numerous genuine issues of material facts disputed among the parties on their various claims. The trial of this action will accordingly remain set for November 18, 2019.

         I. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment may only be granted “if 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 factual dispute is considered genuine “if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). “A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Vannoy v. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, 827 F.3d 296, 300 (4th Cir. 2016) (quoting Libertarian Party of Va. v. Judd, 718 F.3d 308, 313 (4th Cir. 2013)).

         The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact through citations to the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, admissions or affidavits in the record. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 522 (4th Cir. 2003). “The burden on the moving party may be discharged by ‘showing'. . . an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. Once this initial burden is met, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party. The nonmoving party “must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial, ” Id. at 322 n.3. The nonmoving party may not rely upon mere allegations or denials of allegations in his pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment. Id. at 324.

         When ruling on a summary judgment motion, a court must view the evidence and any inferences from the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Tolan v. Cotton, 572 U.S. 650, 657 (2014); see also Anderson, 477 U.S. at 255. “Summary judgment cannot be granted merely because the court believes that the movant will prevail if the action is tried on the merits.” Jacobs v. N.C. Admin. Office of the Courts, 780 F.3d 562, 568-69 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting 10A Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller et al., Federal Practice & Procedure § 2728 (3d ed.1998)). “The court therefore cannot weigh the evidence or make credibility determinations.” Id. at 569 (citing Mercantile Peninsula Bank v. French (In re French), 499 F.3d 345, 352 (4th Cir. 2007)).

         In the end, the question posed by a summary judgment motion is whether the evidence as applied to the governing legal rules “is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Id. at 252.

         II. DISCUSSION

         When parties to an action file cross motions for summary judgment that often indicates that the parties agree on the material facts and believe that the resolution of a controlling question of law will decide the case for one side or the other. Not so in this case, where the parties' cross summary judgment motions more closely resemble ships passing in the night on a sea of disputed facts and legal theories.

         This action arises out of a car accident in Hickory, North Carolina on May 20, 2016 between Plaintiff Joey Sigmon (“Sigmon”) and Ally Hennington, who is one of Defendants' (collectively “State Farm”) insureds. Sigmon was injured in the collision, suffering a broken right shoulder, which has led to two surgical procedures. Sigmon's vehicle was declared a total loss.

         Sigmon contends, in an allegation supported by the police report of the accident, that he had the right of way and Defendant pulled out in front of him. Soon after the accident, Sigmon filed a claim with State Farm. On or about May 31, 2016, State Farm accepted “100% liability” and/or told Sigmon that it was taking “full responsibility” for the accident, although the details and scope of State Farm's acceptance of liability is disputed. Sigmon asserts that in reliance on this acceptance of liability, he did not engage counsel, investigate the accident or take any other action to pursue his claims against State Farm's insured.

         In June 2016, State Farm paid Sigmon for the property damage to his vehicle and reimbursed him for rental car expenses. Also, State Farm sought medical information from Sigmon, and the parties began discussions concerning how much Sigmon would be paid for his bodily injuries, but they did not reach an agreement on the amount. From the time when State Farm accepted “responsibility” for the accident on behalf of its insured in late May 2016 until late June 2017, State Farm did not indicate that its acceptance of responsibility was in any manner contingent, uncertain or subject to further investigation or potential modification. However, at some point the agents and/or adjusters responsible for handling the claim at State Farm changed, and on or about June 26, 2017 State Farm changed its position, denying liability and responsibility for Sigmon's claim on the grounds that Sigmon was allegedly contributorily negligent and bore partial responsibility for the accident.

         Following State Farm's denial of responsibility, Sigmon filed personal injury claims against Hennington in the Superior Court of Catawba County, in a case captioned, Joey W. Sigmon and Mary Sigmon v. Ally R. Hennington and Mark H. Hennington, No. 17 CVS 2838, and filed this action, which was removed to this Court on December 21, 2017. The parties have each moved for summary judgment on all of Sigmon's remaining claims - breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation and fraud in the inducement.

         The parties' most fundamental disagreement is over the scope, nature and effect of State Farm's acceptance of responsibility for its insured's liability for Sigmon's injuries and damages as a result of the car accident. Sigmon characterizes State Farm's conduct as a binding acceptance of responsibility on which he relied and which the company is estopped from disavowing (particularly over a year later). State Farm in turn asks the Court to find that its acceptance of responsibility was no more than a part of incomplete negotiations towards a settlement, and it is free to change its position so long as Sigmon cannot prove that he has been “harmed” by the change. Within this overall ...


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