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Merchants Insurance Group v. Mitsubishi Motor Credit Association

January 23, 2008

MERCHANTS INSURANCE GROUP AND MERCHANTS INSURANCE GROUP A/S/O DANIEL HESS AND DEEJAY CARPET CO., INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MITSUBISHI MOTOR CREDIT ASSOCIATION, AND MITSUBISHI MOTOR CREDIT OF AMERICA, INC., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Trager, J.

CORRECTED MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Merchants Insurance Group ("plaintiff" or "Merchants"), an insurance company and the subrogor of non-parties Daniel Hess ("Hess") and DeeJay Carpet Co., Inc. ("DeeJay") seeks contribution and indemnity from defendants Mitsubishi Motor Credit Association and Mitsubishi Motor Credit of America, Inc. (collectively "defendants" or "MMCA") for MMCA's portion of a jury verdict rendered in New York State Supreme Court, Queens County in a personal injury lawsuit, Jocelyn DeJean v. Hess and Deejay Carpet, bearing Index Number 1671/98 ("the DeJean action"). Defendants move for summary judgment arguing that plaintiff's claims are barred by both federal law and the insurance codes of California, New York and Pennsylvania. Plaintiff cross-moves for summary judgment, asserting that under New York law MMCA, the lessor of one of the vehicles involved in the accident, is considered the owner of that vehicle and, therefore, is liable for personal injuries resulting from the negligence operation of that vehicle.

Background

On January 31, 1996, non-party Jocelyn DeJean ("Jocelyn DeJean") entered an agreement with MMCA by which she leased a Mitsubishi Galant ("DeJean vehicle"), for twenty-four months through MMCA. July 12, 2006 Affidavit of William S. Matlin in Support of Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment ("July 2006 Matlin Aff.") ¶ 9; July 12, 2006 Affidavit of Howard F. Strongin in Support of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment ("July 2006 Strongin Aff.") ¶ 8. On November 27, 1997, Jocelyn DeJean was a passenger in that vehicle when it collided with a van owned by DeeJay and driven by Hess. Jocelyn DeJean's August 7, 1998 Verified Amended Complaint ("DeJean's V. Am. Compl.") ¶ 9; July 2006 Strongin Aff. ¶¶ 3, 6. At the time, the DeJean vehicle was being operated by her son, Jerry DeJean ("Jerry DeJean"), with Jocelyn DeJean's permission. Sometime in 1998, Jocelyn DeJean commenced a lawsuit, the "DeJean action," in New York State Supreme Court, Queens County, against Hess, Deejay, Jerry DeJean and Patrick Dejean*fn1 in order to recover damages for personal injuries she sustained in the November 27, 1997 accident. July 2006 Matlin Aff. ¶ 5. On March 26, 2003, a jury returned a verdict for $700,000 in Jocelyn DeJean's favor. Id. ¶ 6. Liability was apportioned between the DeJean vehicle's operator, Jerry DeJean, and DeeJay and Hess, in amounts of seventy percent and thirty percent, respectively. Id.

At the time of the accident, Jocelyn DeJean's vehicle was insured by Allstate Insurance Company. The Allstate policy had a liability limit of $100,000 per occurrence. Id. ¶ 14. The DeJean vehicle's lessor, MMCA, had a liability insurance policy with Reliance Insurance Company ("Reliance"). Reliance is a Pennsylvania corporation that was placed into liquidation on October 3, 2001, and is now defunct. DeeJay's van was insured by Merchants with a liability limit of $1,000,000. Id. ¶ 15. Despite the jury's finding of only thirty percent fault on behalf of Deejay and Hess, Deejay and its insurer Merchants became obligated to pay the entire verdict because of joint and several liability. Id. ¶ 16 ; Pl.'s Am. V. Compl. ¶¶ 35-36.

For reasons that are unclear from the record, entry of judgment in the DeJean action did not occur for over two years. In the interim between the jury verdict and entry of judgment, Merchants filed the instant suit, seeking, on their own behalf and as subrogor for Deejay and Hess, contribution and indemnity from MMCA to recover MMCA's proportionate share of the DeJean verdict. Merchants initially filed suit in October 2003 in New York State Supreme Court, Queens County. Plaintiff's Amended Verified Complaint. The case was subsequently removed to federal court on or about November 26, 2003. Plaintiff thereafter moved for summary judgment and for a declaration that MMCA was obligated to pay its proportionate share of the jury verdict upon entry of judgment in the DeJean action. Defendants cross-moved for summary judgment arguing that the action was not justiciable because judgment had not yet been entered in the DeJean action.

On July 11, 2005, plaintiff's suit was dismissed without prejudice, as it was not yet ripe for review. Merchants Ins. Group. v. Mitsubishi Motor Credit Ass'n, No. 03-cv-6017, 2005 WL 1631145 (E.D.N.Y. July 11, 2005). Merchants was granted leave to re-open the case if and when judgment was entered in the DeJean action and Merchants made its payment. The remainder of defendants' and plaintiff's arguments were not addressed on the merits at that time. The Clerk of the Court was directed to close the case; on July 12, 2005, the case was terminated and on July 13, 2005, judgment was accordingly entered.

On August 26, 2005, a judgment of $855,376.64 was finally entered in state court in the DeJean action. July 2006 Strongin Aff. ¶ 7, Ex. D (Judgment with Notice of Entry). Merchants satisfied the judgment at a reduced amount of $600,000 on or about December 12, 2005. Plaintiff's July 12, 2006 Statement of Undisputed Facts ¶ 13, Ex. E (copy of the check from Merchants Insurance Group). Once Merchants made payment on the DeJean judgment, Merchants' counsel asked to re-open the case by letter dated January 27, 2006 and the case was subsequently re-opened in June 2006.*fn2

Discussion

(1) New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Defendants qualify as owners of the DeJean vehicle under New York law. New York law defines an "owner" as:

[a] person, other than a lien holder, having the property in or title to a vehicle or vessel. The term includes a person entitled to the use and possession of a vehicle or vessel subject to a security interest in another person and also includes any lessee or bailee of a motor vehicle or vessel having the exclusive use thereof, under a lease or otherwise for a period of greater than thirty days.

N.Y. VEH. & TRAF. LAW § 128 (McKinney 2005). Defendants do not dispute that they are the title owner of the DeJean vehicle.

New York law holds defendants, as owner of the DeJean vehicle, responsible for damages arising from Jerry DeJean's negligent operation of that vehicle. N.Y. VEH. & TRAF. LAW § 388 (McKinney 2005). Section 388 states, in relevant part, that:

Every owner of a vehicle used or operated in this state shall be liable and responsible for death or injuries to person or property resulting from negligence in the use or operation of such vehicle, in the business of such owner or otherwise, by any person using or ...


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