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State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Dantzler

Supreme Court of Nebraska

September 12, 2014

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

Petition for further review from the Court of Appeals, MOORE, PIRTLE, and BISHOP, Judges, on appeal thereto from the District Court for Douglas County, KIMBERLY MILLER PANKONIN, Judge.

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

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

HEAVICAN, C.J., WRIGHT, CONNOLLY, STEPHAN, MCCORMACK, MILLER-LERMAN, and CASSEL, JJ.

OPINION

Page 919

[289 Neb. 2] Wright, J.

NATURE OF CASE

State Farm Fire & Casualty Company (State Farm) brought an action for declaratory judgment, claiming its rental dwelling policy issued to Jerry Dantzler excluded coverage for personal injuries allegedly sustained by Dantzler's tenant as a result of exposure to lead-based paint. In cross-motions

Page 920

for summary judgment, State Farm and Dantzler requested a determination whether a policy exclusion precluded coverage for the tenant's personal injury claim. The district court sustained State Farm's motion for summary judgment and concluded as a matter of law that the pollution exclusion barred coverage under State Farm's policy.

In State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Dantzler, [1] the Nebraska Court of Appeals reversed the entry of summary judgment, concluding that in the absence of proof how the tenant was allegedly exposed to lead-based paint, it could not determine as a matter of law whether the pollution exclusion barred coverage. It reasoned that whether the alleged exposure to lead-based paint occurred through a " discharge, dispersal, spill, release or escape," as specified in the exclusion, was a factual determination that depended upon the manner of exposure.[2] We granted State Farm's petition for further review.

SCOPE OF REVIEW

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 [289 Neb. 3] 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.[3]

The meaning of a contract is a question of law, in connection with which an appellate court has an obligation to reach its conclusions independently of the determinations made by the court below.[4]

FACTS

Dantzler owned a rental property in Omaha, Nebraska. He maintained insurance on the rental property with a rental dwelling policy issued by State Farm. The relevant provisions of the policy stated:

COVERAGE L - BUSINESS LIABILITY
If a claim is made or a suit is brought against any insured for damages because of bodily injury, personal injury, or property damage to which this coverage applies, caused by an occurrence, and which arises from the ownership, maintenance, or use of the insured premises, we will:
1. pay up to our limit of liability for the damages for which the insured is legally liable; and
2. provide a defense at our expense by counsel of our choice. . . .
. . . .

SECTION II - EXCLUSIONS

1. Coverage L - Business Liability [does] not apply to:
. . . .
i. bodily injury or property damage arising out of the actual, alleged or threatened discharge, dispersal, spill, release or escape of pollutants:
(1) at or from premises owned, rented or occupied by the named insured;
. . . .
As used in this ...

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