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In re Estate of Striplin

April 13, 2004


[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 02-L-429 Honorable Raymond J. McKoski, Judge, Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Grometer

[8]  Defendant, Allstate Insurance Company, appeals the trial court's order granting summary judgment to plaintiffs, Terry Striplin, as administrator of the estate of Dillon Striplin and as the parent of Corey Striplin, Denton Striplin, and Zachary Striplin; and Jason Striplin. The trial court held that plaintiffs could "stack" the underinsured motorist coverages for two vehicles under a policy that defendant issued to Terry Striplin. Defendant argues that the trial court erred in holding that the arrangement of the policy's declarations pages--showing a separate liability limit for each vehicle insured--created an ambiguity that had to be resolved in favor of greater coverage. Defendant contends that the court should have enforced the policy's unambiguous antistacking provision. We agree, and therefore reverse.

[9]  Terry Striplin insured two vehicles, a Ford truck and a Ford van, under a policy that defendant issued. The policy contained two declarations pages, one for each vehicle. Each declarations page provided that the insured had uninsured motorist coverage of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per occurrence.

[10]   The policy's general provisions contained a paragraph entitled "Combining Limits Of Two Or More Autos Prohibited." This paragraph provided as follows:

"The limits of liability applicable to any one auto shown on the policy declarations will not be combined with or added to the limits of liability applicable to any other auto shown on the policy declarations or covered by the policy, even though a separate premium is charged for each of those autos ***. *** If two or more autos are shown on the policy declarations and one of these autos is involved in the accident, the limits of liability shown on the policy declarations for the involved auto will apply. If none of the autos shown on the policy declarations is involved in the accident, the highest limits of liability shown on the policy declarations for any one auto will apply." (Emphasis in original.)

[12]   On January 12, 2002, Terry Striplin's son, Dillon Striplin, was riding in a vehicle driven and insured by Richard Miller. Miller drove negligently and ran into a tree. As a result, Dillon Striplin was killed. Under Miller's automobile insurance policy, plaintiffs collected $50,000, which was the policy limit. They then filed a claim for underinsured motorist benefits under Terry Striplin's policy. Defendant paid plaintiffs $50,000--the $100,000 coverage limit for one vehicle minus the $50,000 received from Miller's insurer. Plaintiffs claimed they could combine or "stack" the coverage limits for the two vehicles that defendant insured. When defendant refused to pay more, plaintiffs filed this action seeking a declaration that they were entitled to $150,000--the combined limit of $200,000 minus the $50,000 already received. Both parties moved for summary judgment.

[13]   The trial court agreed with plaintiffs that, under Bruder v. Country Mutual Insurance Co., 156 Ill. 2d 179 (1993), the policy's multiple listings of liability limits on the declarations pages conflicted with the antistacking language in the general provisions. The court resolved the ambiguity in favor of greater coverage for the insured. Accordingly, the court granted plaintiffs' summary judgment motion and denied defendant's motion. Defendant timely appeals.

[14]   Defendant argues that the trial court erred in holding that the policy is ambiguous. According to defendant, the statements in Bruder that the court relied on are obiter dicta, which are not binding on lower courts. Defendant points out that several supreme court cases have held that unambiguous antistacking clauses, such as that in defendant's policy, must be given effect. Defendant contends that merely listing the limits of liability for multiple insured vehicles separately, without more, does not negate the policy's clear antistacking language.

[15]   The construction of an insurance policy is a question of law subject to de novo review. McKinney v. Allstate Insurance Co., 188 Ill. 2d 493, 497 (1999). The primary object of contract construction is to ascertain and give effect to the parties' intentions as expressed in their agreement. American States Insurance Co. v. Koloms, 177 Ill. 2d 473, 479 (1997). If the policy is clear and unambiguous, we must give the language its plain meaning. If terms are ambiguous, they should be construed against the insurer, which drafted the policy. Koloms, 177 Ill. 2d at 479. However, courts should not strain to find an ambiguity where none exists. McKinney, 188 Ill. 2d at 497.

[16]   Because of its central role in the trial court's decision and in the parties' arguments on appeal, we begin with a discussion of Bruder. There, Ruth Bruder was injured in an accident with two uninsured drivers. Among several insurance policies that provided coverage was a business auto policy covering two trucks owned by her husband, John Bruder. The Bruders attempted to stack the uninsured motorist coverage applicable to the two trucks. The policy contained a provision that unambiguously prohibited stacking coverages. Bruder, 156 Ill. 2d at 189. However, the Bruders contended that the layout of the declarations page, listing separately the premiums paid for each coverage for each truck, created an ambiguity. The court rejected this argument. It observed that, although the declarations page listed separate premiums for each truck, it showed only once the limits of liability applicable to both trucks. Bruder, 156 Ill. 2d at 192. The court continued as follows: "It would not be difficult to find an ambiguity created by

such a listing of the bodily injury liability limit for each person insured. It could easily be interpreted that an insured should enjoy a total limit of $200,000 in coverage because a figure of $100,000 would be shown for each pickup truck. There would be little to suggest in such a listing that the parties intended that coverage was to be limited to that provided for only one of the two pickup trucks. It would be more reasonable to assume that the parties intended that, in return for the two premiums, two $100,000 coverage amounts were afforded." Bruder, 156 Ill. 2d at 192.

[18]   How to interpret what has become known as the Bruder dicta has divided this state's appellate court ever since. The Fifth District had apparently taken the position that, regardless of antistacking language in the policy, any listing of multiple liability limits automatically creates an ambiguity that must be resolved in favor of the insured. See Yates v. Farmers Auto Insurance Ass'n, 311 Ill. App. 3d 797 (2000); Pekin Insurance Co. v. Estate of Goben, 303 Ill. App. 3d 639 (1999). In its most recent opinion, however, the Fifth District retreated from its previous position, holding that the presence of multiple liability limits, in combination with other language, may create an ambiguity. Hall v. General Casualty Co. of Illinois, 328 Ill. App. 3d 655, 660 (2002). In Domin v. Shelby Insurance Co., 326 Ill. App. 3d 688 (2001), the First District expressed some doubt about the soundness of the Bruder dicta but did not consider the issue further because the policy there, like that in Bruder, contained only a single listing of the liability limits rather than a "confusing columnar arrangement." Domin, 326 Ill. App. 3d at 696-97. The Fourth District, without discussing Bruder, held that listing multiple liability limits on the declarations page did not create an ambiguity in the face of clear antistacking language elsewhere in the policy. Pekin Insurance Co. v. Estate of Ritter, 322 Ill. App. 3d 1004, 1005 (2001). Two federal courts have discussed the issue as well. See Allen v. Transamerica Insurance Co., 128 F.3d 462 (7th Cir. 1997); Moehring v. Allied Property & Casualty Insurance Co., No. 00--CV--4234--JPG (S.D. Ill. 2001).

[19]   Having considered these cases and their various rationales, we cannot accept a per se rule that any listing of multiple limits of liability creates an ambiguity. There are several reasons for this. First, such a holding would be inconsistent with later supreme court precedent. Two years after Bruder, the supreme court decided Grzeszczak v. Illinois Farmers Insurance Co., 168 Ill. 2d 216 (1995), a case involving an attempt to stack underinsured motorist coverages under two separate policies. The court initially stated that antistacking clauses will be enforced as written if they are unambiguous and do not violate public policy. Grzeszczak, 168 Ill. 2d at 223. The court then held that clauses in both policies, stating that the " 'total limit' " of the defendant's liability under all policies would not exceed the highest applicable limit under any one policy, unambiguously prevented the insured from aggregating, or stacking, coverage under multiple policies. Grzeszczak, 168 Ill. 2d at 225. Although the court did not explicitly say so, because Grzeszczak involved two separate policies, the only logical inference is that each policy included its own declarations page listing the liability limits for the vehicle covered by that policy. However, the court held that the antistacking provisions clearly prevented stacking the coverages in the separate policies. We see no meaningful distinction between two declarations pages attached to separate policies and, as is the case here, two declarations pages attached to the same policy.

[20]   The problem with a per se approach is further illustrated by the following example. Here, as in Bruder, the liability limits for the two covered vehicles are identical. However, if different limits applied to the two vehicles, under a broad reading of Bruder, defendant could never unambiguously prohibit stacking. The different coverage limits would have to be set out somewhere, and this would always trump an ...

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