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Auto-Owners Insurance Co. v. Ione Forstrom

August 05, 2004

AUTO-OWNERS INSURANCE COMPANY, APPELLANT,
v.
IONE FORSTROM, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, MARK ANTHONY HEATH, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, PABLO OJEDA-NAPOLES, ET AL., RESPONDENTS, HEATHER TUCKEE, AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF TANNER RAY HEATH, RESPONDENT, MYRON WEEGE, JR., AS PARENT AND NATURAL GUARDIAN OF MYRON WEEGE, III, AND BRIANNA WEEGE, RESPONDENT.



SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

The introduction of extrinsic evidence to rebut the presumption of ownership of a motor vehicle and to prove the identity of the vehicle's true owner is permitted only in cases in which the seller/transferor fails to comply with the transfer requirements of the Motor Vehicle Certificate of Title Act and seeks to avoid liability under the Safety Responsibility Act or to determine rights and responsibilities relating to uninsured motorist coverage.

Affirmed.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Page, Justice.

Took No Part, Meyer, J.

OPINION

In this case, Auto-Owners Insurance Company (Auto-Owners)*fn1 asks us to determine whether extrinsic evidence of ownership of a motor vehicle may be introduced to rebut the presumption that the person named in the vehicle's certificate of title is the vehicle's true owner. Because we find no basis to permit the introduction of extrinsic evidence, we reject Auto-Owners' claim and affirm the court of appeals.

The facts of this case are not in dispute. On May 13, 2000, Mark Heath was operating a 1988 Chevrolet Beretta owned by Alisha Dennis with her permission. At or near the intersection of County Road 44 and U.S. Highway 63, Dennis's vehicle ran a stop sign and collided with Pablo Ojeda-Napoles'*fn2 vehicle. In April 2001, the Ojeda-Napoles commenced a personal injury lawsuit against Heath and Dennis. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company insured Dennis's vehicle and, in response to the lawsuit, Metropolitan Life deposited the liability limits of Dennis's policy with the district court.

At the time of the accident, Heath resided with his grandmother, Ione Forstrom, and had no automobile insurance policy in his own name. Forstrom's Auto-Owners policy provided coverage for relatives living with her who did not own an automobile as long as the automobile the relative was driving at the time a claim for coverage arose was not available for her or the relatives' regular use.*fn3 In deposition testimony, Heath stated that he "had" a 1991 Cutlass at the time of the accident, but that he did not own it because the vehicle was "in [his] parents' name." The Cutlass, although in Heath's possession, was inoperable due to a broken head gasket and was uninsured. According to Heath, he was in the process of purchasing the Cutlass from his parents and was making payments to them.

On February 13, 2002, Auto-Owners brought a declaratory judgment action seeking a determination that the Auto-Owners policy issued to Forstrom did not provide excess liability coverage for Heath's involvement in the motor vehicle accident with the vehicle owned and operated by Pablo Ojeda-Napoles. Auto-Owners took the position that coverage was excluded because Heath owned the Cutlass and Forstrom's policy excluded coverage for relatives living with the insured who owned an automobile. On March 12, 2002, the Ojeda-Napoles moved for summary judgment, asserting that because the Cutlass was temporarily inoperable it was not required to be registered pursuant to Minnesota Statutes chapter 168 and therefore was not a "motor vehicle" within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 2 (2002), of the No-Fault Act. Based on that assertion, the Ojeda-Napoles argued that Heath was covered by the policy issued to his grandmother. On June 18, 2002, the district court denied the motion for summary judgment, finding that the Cutlass was a motor vehicle under the No-Fault Act and therefore the exclusion in Forstrom's policy applied.

The Ojeda-Napoles sought reconsideration of the court's order based on this court's decision in American National General Insurance v. Solum, 641 N.W.2d 891 (Minn. 2002), which was filed in April 2002. The district court reheard the arguments, vacated its earlier order, and granted summary judgment to the Ojeda-Napoles. The court found that Heath did not own the Cutlass on the date of the accident because he was not the registered owner of the vehicle. In making that finding, the district court, relying on Solum, refused to consider extrinsic evidence rebutting the presumption of ownership.*fn4

On appeal, the court of appeals affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.*fn5 Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Forstrom, 669 N.W.2d 617, 622 (Minn. App. 2003). With respect to ownership of the Cutlass, the court of appeals, based on its reading of Solum, affirmed the district court's grant of summary judgment. Forstrom, 669 N.W.2d at 620-21. The court of appeals interpreted Solum as a case "specifically and clearly not[ing] that there are only two situations where it is permissible to introduce extrinsic evidence to rebut the presumption of ownership: '[F]or purposes of vicarious liability under the Motor Vehicle Act and liability under the No Fault Act.'" Forstrom, 669 N.W.2d at 620 (alteration in original) (quoting Solum, 641 N.W.2d at 898).

This case presents two questions for our review: (1) whether, on the facts presented, our decision in Solum should be read to preclude the use of extrinsic evidence to rebut the presumption of ownership of the Cutlass; and (2) whether the Cutlass, though disabled, was a motor vehicle within the meaning of Minn. Stat. § 65B.43, subd. 2 (2002). Because we conclude that the use of extrinsic evidence to rebut the presumption of ownership of the Cutlass is precluded, we affirm.

Review of a summary judgment award consists of determining whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and whether the district court erred in applying the law to the facts. Jorgensen v. Knutson, 662 N.W.2d 893, 897 (Minn. 2003). When a district court grants summary judgment after applying the law to undisputed facts, the legal conclusion is reviewed de novo. Lefto v. Hoggsbreath Enters., Inc., 581 N.W.2d 855, 856 (Minn. 1998). Statutory construction and the interpretation of the language of ...


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