Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.
A claim for uninsured motorist benefits based on wrongful death must be commenced within the six-year contract statute of limitations.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Meyer, Justice.
Concurring specially, Anderson, Paul H., J.
Dissenting, Gilbert, J. and Anderson, Russell A., J.
The issue before this court is whether a claim for uninsured motorist benefits based on wrongful death must be commenced within the three-year wrongful death statute of limitations or the six-year contract statute of limitations. We are asked to construe the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 18 (2002) requiring an insured in a claim for uninsured motorist benefits to establish that she is "legally entitled to recover damages" for the harm caused by the tortfeasor. We conclude that the six-year contract statute of limitations applies generally to uninsured motorist claims and that in a claim based on wrongful death, an insured need not comply with the three-year wrongful death statute of limitations in order to recover uninsured motorist benefits.
The relevant facts are not in dispute. On May 29, 1997, Kathleen Rose Fields and Daniel Joseph Fields were killed in a car accident and neither the owner nor the driver was insured. Kathleen and Daniel Fields were insured under an auto insurance policy issued to their brother by Illinois Farmers Insurance Company with uninsured motorist benefits of $30,000/$60,000.*fn1
On January 25, 1999, Kathleen and Daniel Fields's mother Patricia Miklas served the uninsured owner, the uninsured driver, and Illinois Farmers with a complaint alleging alternative claims for wrongful death and uninsured motorist benefits. The complaint asserted that Miklas had been appointed trustee for Kathleen and Daniel Fields on September 29, 1997.*fn2 Miklas had not, in fact, been appointed as trustee for either Kathleen or Daniel Fields.
In May of 2001, Illinois Farmers and Miklas negotiated a policy limits settlement on the claim for Kathleen Fields's death. Miklas petitioned the district court to approve the settlement and a hearing was held on January 17, 2002, at which time it was discovered that Miklas had not been appointed trustee for either Kathleen or Daniel Fields. The court appointed Miklas as trustee, approved the settlement, and later issued a written order to that effect.
Illinois Farmers did not attend the hearing because it believed the hearing to be a routine approval of a wrongful death settlement. Upon learning that it had settled the wrongful death claim before Miklas had been appointed trustee, Illinois Farmers moved to vacate the settlement and dismiss the remaining claims. Illinois Farmers argued that the three-year statute of limitations for a wrongful death action applied, and that the failure to appoint a trustee within three years left the court without jurisdiction to appoint Miklas as the trustee.*fn3 The district court did not vacate the settlement in the Kathleen Fields matter, citing the policy favoring settlement of claims without litigation, but it did dismiss the remainder of Miklas's claims with prejudice. Illinois Farmers and Miklas each appealed the rulings adverse to them.
The court of appeals determined that the district court abused its discretion in approving the Kathleen Fields settlement because a trustee had not been appointed for Fields's heirs and next-of-kin within three years of the date of Fields's death and, therefore, the claim was a nullity. Miklas v. Parrott, 663 N.W.2d 583, 587 (Minn. App. 2003). The court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of Miklas's remaining claims. Id. at 588. Miklas petitioned this court for review.
As an initial matter we must clarify whether the tort or contract statute of limitations applies generally to uninsured motorist claims. At oral argument, neither party asserted that the six-year tort not the six-year contract statute of limitations applies. This court has yet to clearly enunciate whether the contract or tort limitation period applies to uninsured motorist claims. However, we have applied the contract statute of limitations to underinsured motorist claims. See Beaudry v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 518 N.W.2d 11, 13 (Minn. 1994), overruled in part by Oanes v. Allstate Ins. Co., 617 N.W.2d 401, 406 (Minn. 2000); O'Neill v. Illinois Farmers Ins. Co., 381 N.W.2d 439, 440 (Minn. 1986), overruled in part by Oanes v. Allstate Ins. Co., 617 N.W.2d 401, 406 ...