Parker v. Safeco Insurance Co.

Parker v. Safeco Insurance Co., 2016 MT 173 (July 19, 2016) (McGrath, C.J.) (5-0, aff’d)

Issue: Whether the district court erred in construing Parker’s insurance policy as excluding coverage for damage caused by a large rock falling down a hillside into Parker’s cabin. 

Short Answer: No.

Affirmed 

Facts: In March 2014, a large boulder dislodged from a hillside and fell down the hill into Parker’s unoccupied cabin, causing substantial damage. Parker submitted a claim to his insurer, Safeco.

Safeco hired an engineer who examined the damage within 12 days of its occurrence. The expert reconstructed the 440-foot path the boulder took, and found where the boulder had dislodged from the cliff. The expert opined that expanding soil and water in cracks in the rock caused “frost wedging,” which caused the rock to dislodge.

In April 2014, Parker’s expert examined the site , and concurred as to the original location of the boulder and the role of the freeze-thaw process in causing the rock to fall. Parker’s expert did not observe soil at the cliff site, but “infilling from weathered granite gneiss.” Safeco denied Parker’s claim, concluding it was excluded by the earth movement exclusion in the policy.

Procedural Posture & Holding: Parker sued Safeco for breach of contract and UTPA damages. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court granted Safeco’s motion and denied Parker’s. Parker appeals and the Supreme Court affirms.

Reasoning: The district court read the exclusion provision as a whole, without isolating single words, and determined that the intent was to exclude coverage for damage caused by any movement of materials that make up the earth’s surface. Construing the policy to exclude only damages covered by soil movement, as Parker argues, would improperly distort the policy language. The Court agrees with the district court that “earth” as used in the policy is intended to include all natural materials that comprise the surface of the earth, including rocks and soil. The district court found, and the Supreme Court agrees, that Safeco promptly informed Parker it would rely upon the earth movement exclusion in the policy, and considered the falling boulder a “landslide” under the policy. Safeco properly denied parker’s claim based on an express exclusion in the policy, and the district court properly held there was no basis for a claim under the UTPA.