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Stokes v. Pekin Insurance Co.

July 28, 1998

WILLIAM K. STOKES, LOLA STOKES, AND STEPHANIE L. STOKES, BY HER MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND, LOLA STOKES, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
PEKIN INSURANCE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Welch delivered the opinion of the court:

Rule 23 Order filed June 24, 1998;

Motion to publish granted

No. 97-MR-7

IN THE APPELLATE COURT OF ILLINOIS FIFTH DISTRICT

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Montgomery County.

Honorable John W. McGuire, Judge, presiding.

On April 2, 1996, Stephanie L. Stokes sustained severe injuries as a result of an automobile accident in which she was a passenger in a car owned by Linda Anderson and driven by Geneva E. Rhodes. At the time of the accident, Anderson was insured by defendant, Farmers Automobile Insurance Association, incorrectly sued as Pekin Insurance Company. The insurance policy issued to Anderson and effective at the time of the accident provides for liability motorist coverage of $100,000 for each person and $300,000 for each accident.

On February 5, 1997, plaintiffs filed a complaint for declaratory judgment seeking a determination as to whether the $100,000-per-person limit or the $300,000-per-accident limit applies. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss arguing that such a determination prior to a judgment of liability is premature. On June 16, 1997, the circuit court granted defendant's motion to dismiss, and this appeal follows.

We review de novo a decision by the circuit court granting a motion to dismiss. Federal Insurance Co. v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co., 271 Ill. App. 3d 1117, 1121 (1995). We accept all well-pleaded facts as true for purposes of reviewing the circuit court's dismissal of plaintiffs' complaint for declaratory judgment. Miles Kimball Co. v. Anderson, 128 Ill. App. 3d 805, 806 (1984).

The only issue before us on appeal is whether plaintiffs' complaint, seeking a determination as to the limits of liability as to the insurance policy issued to the owner of the automobile in which Stokes was injured, is premature. Defendant argues that the circuit court acted properly in following the nearly identical case of Batteast v. Argonaut Insurance Co., 118 Ill. App. 3d 4 (1983), and the similar case of Weber v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Insurance Co., 251 Ill. App. 3d 371 (1993), in holding that the declaratory judgment action is premature prior to a finding of liability. This court sitting in the first district decided Batteast, and this court sitting in the third district decided Weber. Plaintiffs do not attempt to distinguish either Batteast or Weber from the case at bar but argue that the fifth district appellate court has ruled differently on the issue presented in the instant action and that language in the supreme court's decision in Murphy v. Urso, 88 Ill. 2d 444 (1981), allows this declaratory judgment action to survive dismissal.

The law surrounding the court's authority to issue a declaratory judgment is well established. In determining the ripeness of a declaratory action, the court must first determine whether the complaint recites in sufficient detail an actual and legal controversy between the parties which demonstrates that the plaintiff is interested in the controversy. Best v. Taylor Machine Works, 179 Ill. 2d 367 (1997). Illinois courts should liberally construe the declaratory judgment statute and should not be restricted by unduly technical interpretations. First of America Bank, Rockford, N.A. v. Netsch, 166 Ill.2d 165, 174 (1995). This court has held that an "actual controversy" exists where there is a legitimate dispute admitting of an immediate and definite determination of the parties' rights, the resolution of which would help terminate all or part of the dispute. Dolezal v. Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery, S.C., 266 Ill. App. 3d 1070, 1083 (1994) (citing City of Chicago v. Department of Human Rights 141 Ill. App. 3d 165, 169-70 (1986)). A declaratory judgment action is used "to afford security and relief against uncertainty with a view to avoiding litigation, rather than in aid of it." (Emphasis added.) Dolezal, 266 Ill. App. 3d at 1083 (quoting City of Chicago, 141 Ill. App. 3d at 169-70).

In addition, the complaint must show that the underlying facts and issues of the case are not moot or premature. Pincham v. Cunningham, 285 Ill. App. 3d 780, 782 (1996). This court cannot pass judgment on mere abstract propositions of law, render an advisory opinion, or give legal advice as to future events. Pincham, 285 Ill. App. 3d at 782.

The circuit court granted defendant's motion to dismiss, based on this court's decisions in Batteast and Weber. In Batteast, the plaintiff brought a personal injury action against St. Bernard's Hospital, alleging that he suffered permanent brain damage while in their care. The defendant, Argonaut Insurance Company, had issued an insurance policy to the hospital, and the policy was effective at the time of the injury. During the settlement negotiations, a dispute arose as to the amount of coverage available under the insurance policy. Because the dispute hindered negotiations, the plaintiff brought ...


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