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Country Mutual Insurance Co. v. Oehler's Home Care, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

October 21, 2019

OEHLER'S HOME CARE, INC.; SHELLIE OEHLER, Individually; and BETH YODER, as Executor of the Estate of Jeffrey Oehler, Deceased, Defendants-Appellees Country Mutual Insurance Company, Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of McLean County No. 15-MR-304 Honorable Paul G. Lawrence, Judge Presiding.

          Attorneys for Appellant: Barbara Snow Mirdo, of Thielen, Foley & Mirdo, LLC, of Bloomington, for appellant.

          Attorneys for Appellee: Laura A. Castagna, of Kelly & Castagna, LLC, of Bloomington, and Joseph W. Dunn, of Pekin, for appellees.

          JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices DeArmond and Cavanagh concurred in the judgment and opinion.


          Steigmann Justice.

         ¶ 1 In February 2015, Shellie Oehler, as executor of the estate of Jeffrey Oehler (the Estate), filed a complaint against Oehler's Home Care, Inc. (OHC), alleging employees of OHC caused the death of Jeffrey Oehler, a spastic quadriplegic who required constant care, by negligently providing care while preparing to place Jeffrey in a van. The complaint alleged that in April 2013, two employees were preparing to place Jeffrey in a specialized vehicle to transport him home when Jeffrey fell from his wheelchair, broke his neck, and subsequently died. The complaint asserted that OHC's employees were negligent when they (1) "failed to properly monitor [Jeffrey] in his wheelchair during preparation for transport," (2) "failed to properly restrain [Jeffrey] in preparation for transport," and (3) "failed to properly and reasonably care for [Jeffrey] to prevent a fall from his wheelchair."

         ¶ 2 In April 2015, plaintiff, Country Mutual Insurance Company (Country Mutual) filed a declaratory judgment action against OHC, Shellie Oehler, individually, and the Estate (collectively, defendants). (Beth Yoder was subsequently substituted as the executor of the Estate and as a party defendant in this case.) Country Mutual sought a declaration that it had no duty to defend the underlying action, asserting that Jeffrey's accident was excluded from coverage under OHC's business owners policy because the accident involved (1) the use of an auto and (2) the rendering of professional services.

         ¶ 3 In April 2018, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. In January 2019, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, concluding that the auto and professional services exclusions did not apply.

         ¶ 4 Country Mutual appeals, arguing the trial court erred when it entered summary judgment in favor of defendants and denied Country Mutual's motion for summary judgment because the accident involved (1) the use of a vehicle and (2) the rendering of professional services, both of which were excluded from coverage under the business owners policy. We agree with Country Mutual's first argument and reverse the trial court's judgment.

         ¶ 5 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 6 A. The Underlying Action

         ¶ 7 In February 2015, Shellie Oehler, as executor of the estate of Jeffrey Oehler, filed a complaint against OHC for the wrongful death of Jeffrey (hereinafter referred to as the underlying complaint). The underlying complaint alleged that Jeffrey "was confined to a wheelchair due to his medical condition and relied upon employees of [OHC] for his care." The underlying complaint stated employees of OHC transported Jeffrey to Sam's Club in April 2013 and "were in the process of preparing [Jeffrey] for transfer into his van seat when they failed to prevent a fall forward from his wheelchair." Jeffrey hit his head on the pavement and was taken to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fracture in his neck. Jeffrey died two days later.

         ¶ 8 The underlying complaint alleged OHC's employees were negligent in three separate ways because they (1) "failed to properly monitor [Jeffrey] in his wheelchair during preparation for transport," (2) "failed to properly restrain [Jeffrey] in preparation for transport," and (3) "failed to properly and reasonably care for [Jeffrey] to prevent a fall from his wheelchair." Count I asserted a claim for wrongful death while count II asserted a survival claim.

         ¶ 9 B. The Declaratory Judgment Complaint

         ¶ 10 In April 2015, Country Mutual filed a complaint for a declaratory judgment against OHC, Shellie Oehler, individually, and the Estate. (We note that Country Preferred Mutual Insurance Company (Country Preferred) was a "coplaintiff" to the complaint and sought a declaratory judgment that it had no duty to defend under a separate auto policy because defendants failed to provide proper notice. Eventually, Country Preferred moved for summary judgment, and the trial court granted judgment in its favor. However, the court's judgment as to Country Preferred is not at issue in this appeal.)

         ¶ 11 In its complaint, Country Mutual alleged that the business owners policy contained two applicable exclusions that relieved it of the duty to defend OHC against the underlying complaint. First, Country Mutual asserted that the auto exclusion excluded all claims relating to" 'Bodily injury' or property damage arising out of the ownership, maintenance, use or entrustment to others of any *** 'auto' *** owned or operated by *** any insured." Country Mutual claimed the accident arose out of the use of a vehicle and was therefore excluded from coverage.

         ¶ 12 Second, Country Mutual contended that the accident arose out of OHC's employees' rendering "professional services," which were excluded from coverage. The policy stated professional services "includes but is not limited to *** [m]edical, surgical, dental, x-ray or nursing services treatment, advice or instruction; [and] *** [a]ny health or therapeutic service treatment, advice or instruction."

         ¶ 13 C. The Motions for Summary Judgment

         ¶ 14 1. Other Procedural History

         ¶ 15 The parties filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings, asserting that the policies either covered or did not cover the accident as a matter of law. The trial court denied these motions. The court then consolidated the declaratory judgment action with the action on the underlying complaint for the purposes of discovery only. Thereafter, Beth Yoder was substituted as the executor of the Estate, and consequently, the court substituted her as a party defendant.

         ¶ 16 2. The Estate's Motion

         ¶ 17 In April 2018, the Estate filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued that the business owners policy covered the accident. In support of its motion, the Estate attached (1) a copy of the underlying compliant, (2) a copy of the business owners policy, and (3) the depositions of Shellie, Shawna Lewis, and Charleston Balf

         ¶ 18 a. Shellie Oehler

         ¶ 19 Shellie testified that she married Jeffrey in 1983. In 1988, Jeffrey was injured in a work-related accident that rendered him a spastic quadriplegic. Shellie explained that Jeffrey was not completely paralyzed because he could move his arms and legs to some degree but with little control. Jeffrey could not function on his own and required assistance in every aspect of his life, including eating, bathing, getting dressed, maintaining hygiene, moving, walking, and getting from place to place. Jeffrey received this assistance from the home aides hired by OHC.

         ¶ 20 Shellie testified that, at home, Jeffrey was primarily in a specialized chair with small wheels on its legs, but he could walk with significant assistance. Shellie explained that two people, one on either side, would hold Jeffrey and he could swing his legs to walk while the home aides swayed him back and forth. Jeffrey was blind but could hear and communicate verbally. Shellie stated it was difficult for new people to understand him at first. Jeffrey was occasionally difficult and would flail and curse, particularly if he did not want to do something, like his stretches.

         ¶ 21 He would also get excited from time to time and could lean forward and fall out of his chair if not monitored. Staff would not attempt to transfer Jeffrey to or from his wheelchair or do other activities when he was active with his arms or legs for his safety.

         ¶ 22 Shellie testified she started OHC in 1992 as a home health care service to provide assistance solely to Jeffrey. Shellie was the president and lone shareholder of OHC. She used to work outside the home but became a full-time care provider for Jeffrey. She explained that as part of the settlement of claims surrounding Jeffrey's accident, his employer agreed to pay home health care costs for the rest of his life. She decided to start OHC because she believed she could provide better care for Jeffrey than he was receiving at that time. Shellie explained she did not have any formal training in how to care for a spastic quadriplegic person, but she learned how through a combination of observation and experience. Jeffrey was in rehabilitation and physical therapy programs for around a year after his accident, and Shellie learned from the providers of those services different things to do to assist and care for Jeffrey.

         ¶ 23 Shellie stated she was in charge of hiring employees of OHC. Jeffrey needed 24- hour care, and Shellie split the day into three shifts: (1) 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., (2) 4 p.m. to midnight, and (3) midnight to 8 a.m. Shellie had two employees on duty for the first two shifts and just one employee on duty for the night shift because she was there for the entirety of the night shift. Shellie explained that she did not require prior experience or any specific training of prospective employees because she would train them on how to care for Jeffrey. However, Shellie agreed it was helpful if employees had prior nursing or home health care experience and some did.

         ¶ 24 Shellie testified that Shawna Lewis and Charleston Balf were working on the day of the accident. Lewis was a certified nurse assistant (CNA) who had worked at OHC for five years. Balf had no formal training but had worked for OHC for two and a half years. Shellie needed to go shopping at Sam's Club and wanted Jeffrey to come with her.

         ¶ 25 Shellie made every attempt to give Jeffrey a normal life. She stated that Jeffrey owned a specialized van to transport him. The van had a raised roof and lowered floor for greater accessibility. It also had a lift for a wheelchair in the back. Jeffrey rode in a captain's chair in the van because it was more comfortable and he did not like being in his wheelchair. Shellie said she needed assistance taking Jeffrey anywhere, so she drove separately to the store that day so she could put her purchases in her vehicle.

         ¶ 26 Shellie explained the process for transferring Jeffrey to the van as follows:

"They would position the wheelchair next to the van doors on the side, they would remove his leg rests and store them in the van, and then they would stand side by side at the wheelchair and stand him up and walk him a couple of steps to the van and turn around and then position themselves *** one underneath the top and one under the legs and lift him into the van."

         Shellie stated she trained her employees to perform transfers in this manner and she would not allow them to transfer Jeffrey if they had not been trained. She also stated she was not taught to transfer him in this manner but came to the procedure through common sense and experience.

         ¶ 27 Shellie testified she did not see Jeffrey being loaded into the van on the day of the accident. Lewis and Balf had taken her purchases and put them in her car before they went to put Jeffrey in the van. Shellie stated someone came up to her vehicle and told her there was an accident. Shellie drove to the van and saw that Jeffrey had a skinned head and nose. Shellie asked what happened, and Lewis stated she had her back turned and did not see the fall. ...

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