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State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. v. Dantzler

Court of Appeals of Nebraska

December 17, 2013

State Farm Fire & Casualty Company, appellee,
v.
Jerry Dantzler, appellant, and David Chuol, individually and as father and next friend to Chuol Geit, and Chuol Geit, appellees.

Page 118

Appeal from the District Court for Douglas County: KIMBERLY MILLER PANKONIN, Judge.

Reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Michael A. Nelsen, of Marks, Clare & Richards, L.L.C., for appellant.

David J. Stubstad and Patrick S. Cooper, of Fraser Stryker, P.C., L.L.O., for appellee State Farm Fire & Casualty Company.

Moore, Pirtle, and Bishop, Judges.

Syllabus by the Court

1. Summary Judgment: Appeal and Error. An appellate court will affirm a lower court's grant of summary judgment if the pleadings and admitted evidence show that there is no genuine issue as to any material facts or as to the ultimate inferences that may be drawn from the facts and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

2. Summary Judgment: Appeal and Error. In reviewing a summary judgment, an appellate court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the party against whom the judgment was granted, and gives that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences deducible from the evidence.

3. Contracts: Appeal and Error. The construction of a contract is a matter of law, and an appellate court has an obligation to reach an independent, correct conclusion irrespective of the determinations made by the court below.

4. Insurance: Contracts. A pollution exclusion is unambiguous when it bars coverage for injuries caused by all pollutants, not just traditional environmental pollution.

Pirtle, Judge.

[21 Neb.App. 565] INTRODUCTION

State Farm Fire & Casualty Company (State Farm) brought a declaratory judgment action to determine whether a rental dwelling insurance policy issued to Jerry Dantzler covered lead-based-paint claims made against him by his tenants David Chuol and Chuol Geit. The district court for Douglas County found that the policy excluded coverage of the claims against Dantzler based on a " pollution exclusion," and granted summary judgment in favor of

Page 119

State Farm. We conclude that there is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether there was a " discharge, dispersal, spill, release or escape" of the lead, as required for the policy's pollution exclusion to apply. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the cause for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

Dantzler owns a rental property in Omaha, Nebraska. In September 2006, Chuol and his minor child, Geit, moved into the property. In March 2011, Chuol filed a lawsuit against Dantzler in his own behalf and on behalf of his son, alleging that Geit was " exposed to high levels of lead poisoning" in the rental property due to high levels of lead paint contamination on the walls and elsewhere in the rental property, causing him serious and permanent injury. In the lawsuit, Chuol asserted claims for negligence, breach of implied warranty of habitability, nuisance, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and a violation of 42 U.S.C. ยง 4852(d) (2006). At the time the lawsuit was filed against Dantzler, he had a " Rental Dwelling Policy" of insurance with State Farm for the rental property. Dantzler tendered defense of the claims against him to State Farm pursuant to his policy.

State Farm filed the instant declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that the insurance policy does not provide coverage for claims made against Dantzler arising out of exposure to lead-based paint. Dantzler filed an answer and [21 Neb.App. 566] counterclaim seeking an order declaring that the policy at issue provides coverage for the claims against him which State Farm had wrongfully denied.

The rental dwelling policy of insurance issued to Dantzler by State Farm contains a " pollution exclusion," which excludes from coverage, in pertinent part: " bodily injury or property damage arising out of the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, spill, release or escape of pollutants ... at or from premises owned, rented or occupied by the named insured." As used in the exclusion, the term " pollutants" is defined as " any solid, liquid, ...


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