Choking a Friend to Death Not a Covered Loss

Coverage Limited to Conduct of Business of Insured

Post 4787

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Jodi Greenlaw,  as personal representative of the estate of her late husband Philip J. Greenlaw (collectively, the Estate), appealed from a judgment of the Superior Court granting a motion for summary judgment filed by MMG Insurance Company (MMG) on MMG’s complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that it had no duty to indemnify Joseph McNeely, a close friend of Greenlaw, in a separate wrongful death action that the Estate filed against McNeely after Greenlaw’s death.

In MMG Insurance Company v. Estate Of Philip J. Greenlaw et al., 2024 ME 28, No. Cum-23-228, Supreme Court of Maine (April 18, 2024) the Supreme Court interpreted the policy as written.

BACKGROUND

In 2019, McNeely operated, as sole owner, a landscaping business called Cutter’s Edge Lawn Maintenance. MMG issued a businessowners insurance policy providing both property and liability coverage to McNeely (the MMG Policy).

McNeely had discussed with Greenlaw, his close friend, measuring and providing a proposal to hydroseed Greenlaw’s backyard. On May 20, 2019, Greenlaw hosted “an informal social group” of men at his house. The group “met year-round on Monday evenings to share their enthusiasm for motorcycles by eating, drinking, telling stories, and taking a ride together if the weather permitted.” The group also “discussed business-related topics” and “engaged in frequent business dealings.” McNeely attended these meetings when he could.

McNeely and Greenlaw went to the backyard, where McNeely measured and provided pricing for the project. Greenlaw said he planned to think about the project and would get back to McNeely about it. At around 8:00 p.m., Jodi returned home, and the men, including McNeely and Greenlaw, “wereinebriated.” After 10:00 p.m., Jodi asked how the measuring for the hydroseeding went, and either McNeely or Greenlaw told her about the project’s progress. “Late in the evening,” while “sitting and gabbing,” Greenlaw initiated a wrestling match with McNeely. During the wrestling bout, McNeely put Greenlaw in a chokehold, and Greenlaw lost consciousness and died soon after, despite McNeely’s efforts to revive him.

The MMG Policy, stated that MMG will pay those sums that the insured becomes legally obligated to pay as damages because of bodily injury to which this insurance applies. The MMG Policy defines an “insured” as anyone “designated in the Declarations” as an “individual . . . but only with respect to the conduct of a business of which [the named insured is] the sole owner.” (Emphasis added.)

DISCUSSION

The Estate contends that “whether Greenlaw’s death occurred with respect to the conduct of McNeely’s business” is a triable issue of fact and that the court “erred by discounting the ‘earlier business dealings’ and the litany of other facts . . . when summarily finding that the ‘wrestling itself was not business-related.'”

Unambiguous contract language, however, must be interpreted according to its plain meaning. The Supreme Court concluded that MMG Policy provision was unambiguous. The MMG Policy designated McNeely as an individual, and McNeely was thus covered as an insured, only with respect to the conduct of a business of which he was the sole owner.

The Supreme Court found that the trial court did not err in determining that there was no genuine issue of material fact and that McNeely’s actions while he was wrestling with Greenlaw were not with respect to the conduct of McNeely’s landscaping business.

Although it is undisputed that earlier in the evening McNeely had measured Greenlaw’s backyard and discussed his landscaping business with several individuals, there is no contention, that McNeely’s actions while wrestling with Greenlaw were to further McNeely’s business. In the opinion of the Supreme Corut an ordinary person would not think that the policy’s language would cover McNeely’s actions while wrestling with Greenlaw.

ZALMA OPINION

Getting drunk with a friend, entering into a wrestling match at the home of the friend, and choking his friend to death, could not be part of the landscaping business of the insured even though the two discussed business before the drinking and wrestling began. Wrestling and a fatal choke hold have nothing to do with landscaping.

(c) 2024 Barry Zalma & ClaimSchool, Inc.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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