Amberee N. HENSLEY, Appellant v. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE CO., Appellee.
This appeal requires us to consider when the statute of limitations begins to accrue on an underinsured motorist (“UIM”) claim. For the reasons more fully explained below, we hold that the statute of limitations on a UIM claim begins to run when the insurer denies a claim for UIM coverage. While an insurer can shorten the limitations period by contract, KRS 1 304.14–370 operates to prevent a foreign insurer from relying on policy provisions that bar claims filed less than a year from the accrual of the cause of action. Under both the policy terms at issue and the common law of Kentucky, the UIM claim in this case did not accrue until November 4, 2011, when State Farm denied Hensley's claim, less than a year before this action was filed. Accordingly, the Jefferson Circuit Court erred when it concluded that this action was time-barred. As such, we reverse the circuit court's summary judgment in favor of the Appellee, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. (“State Farm”), and remand this action to the circuit court for adjudication on the merits.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
On August 7, 2009, the Appellant, Amberee N. Hensley, was involved in a motor vehicle accident with Awet Beyene. It is undisputed that Beyene negligently caused the accident. Beyene had liability coverage up to $50,000.00 with Nationwide Insurance (“Nationwide”). The automobile Hensley was driving was owned by Louisville Metro Government and did not have UIM coverage on it. However, Hensley had UIM coverage through two policies of insurance she maintained with State Farm.
In February 2010, Nationwide accepted liability and offered to tender the $50,000.00 policy limits to Hensley in exchange for a settlement agreement releasing Beyene from any further liability. Pursuant to KRS 304.39–320, Hensley sent a letter to State Farm advising it of Beyene's proposed settlement.2 Ultimately, State Farm advised that it did not wish to pursue a subrogation claim.
Thereafter, Hensley began negotiating with State Farm for UIM coverage under her policies. She made a formal demand for UIM benefits on November 4, 2011, which State Farm denied. On January 24, 2012, Hensley filed a breach of contract action against State Farm in Jefferson Circuit Court seeking UIM benefits under her policies.
After a period of discovery, State Farm moved for summary judgment based on the limitations provisions in its policies with Hensley. The policies provide in relevant part:
2. Suit Against Us
There is no right of action against us unless:
d. under uninsured motorist vehicle coverage and underinsured motor vehicle coverage unless such action is commenced not later than two (2) years after the injury, death or the last basic reparations payment made by any reparations obligor, whichever later occurs.
Relying on these provisions, State Farm maintained that because the accident occurred on August 7, 2009, and no death or reparation payments were involved, Hensley was barred from pursuing any “right of action” against it after August 7, 2011. Since Hensley's claim was not filed until January 24, 2012, State Farm argued that it was time-barred.
Hensley responded by asserting that the limitations period contained in her policies was unreasonable (and therefore unenforceable) because it began running her time to file a UIM claim before her breach of contract cause of action against State Farm accrued. She also argued that the limitations provisions were internally inconsistent with another portion of the policies defining an underinsured motorist as one whose coverage is less than the amount of any judgment.3 She argued that this ambiguity should be construed in her favor. State Farm countered that the limitations period in its policies was presumptively reasonable because it mirrored the limitations period in Kentucky's Motor Vehicle Reparations Act (“MVRA”) for filing a personal injury claim.
On December 18, 2012, the circuit court granted State Farm's motion and entered summary judgment in its favor. The circuit court reasoned that the policy at issue provided Hensley with a “reasonable amount of time after the accident to establish that the tortfeasor was an underinsured [motorist] and subsequently file suit against State Farm.”
This appeal followed.
II. Standard of Review
The question before us is a purely legal one regarding coverage under insurance policies. Our standard of review, therefore, is de novo. Dowell v. Safe Auto Ins. Co., 208 S.W.3d 872, 875 (Ky.2006). Under de novo review, we owe no deference to the trial court's application of the law to the established facts. Grange Mutual Ins. Co. v. Trude, 151 S.W.3d 803, 810 (Ky.2004).
A. Interpretation and Construction of Insurance Contracts
Generally speaking, two parties of equal bargaining power are free to contract to any terms and conditions they negotiate with one another; with few exceptions, our courts will not endeavor to rewrite such contracts for the benefit of one party or the other. See Frear v. P.T.A. Ind., Inc., 103 S.W.3d 99, 106 (Ky.2003). Where the contract at issue involves insurance, however, our courts must carefully weigh the right to freely contract against the commercial realities and public policy concerns at issue. See Wehr Constructors, Inc. v. Assurance Co. of Am., 384 S.W.3d 680, 687 (Ky.2012).
To this end, the Kentucky Supreme Court has recognized that insurance contracts with general consumers are “standard-form contracts without the option of arms' length negotiations with the insureds.” Employers Ins. of Wausau v. Martinez, 54 S.W.3d 142, 145 (Ky.2001). “Standard form insurance policies ․ are recognized as contracts of adhesion because they are not negotiated; they are offered to the insurance consumer on essentially a ‘take it or leave it’ basis without affording the consumer a realistic opportunity to bargain.” Jones v. Bituminous Cas. Corp., 821 S .W.2d 798, 801–02 (Ky.1991). Thus, when interpreting contracts of insurance, we must consider the commercial reality that most such contracts between consumers and insurance companies do not contain negotiated terms. See Wehr, 384 S.W.3d at 687 n. 8 (recognizing that “an individual member of the general public, [ ] will normally have considerably less bargaining power than the insurance company from whom he purchases his policy, and thus will generally be compelled to accept the company's standardized adhesion contract.”)
Given the disparity in bargaining power between consumer insureds and insurance companies, Kentucky has adopted “four basic principles of insurance policy construction.” Brown v. Indiana Ins. Co., 184 S.W.3d 528, 541 (Ky.2005).
They are as follows: 1) all exclusions are to be narrowly interpreted and all questions resolved in favor of the insured; 2) exceptions and exclusions are to be strictly construed so as to render the insurance effective; 3) any doubt as to the terms of the policy should be resolved in favor of the insured; and, 4) because the policy is drafted in all details by the insurance company, it must be held strictly accountable for the language employed.
Additionally, where the insurance at issue is regulated by statute, public policy considerations preclude the parties from agreeing to terms and conditions that are hostile to or overly frustrate the statutory purposes behind such insurance. Bishop v. Allstate Ins. Co., 623 S.W.2d 865, 867 (Ky.1981). Thus, “[w]hile we recognize that insurance carriers have the right to impose reasonable conditions and limitations on their insurance coverage even where coverage is required by law, nevertheless the question then becomes the reasonableness of the condition as a limitation on public policy as opposed to one of strict contract considerations between private parties where no public interest is involved.” Jones, 821 S.W.2d at 802.
We are also mindful that it is not for the courts to unilaterally determine public policy. “[T]he public policy of the Commonwealth is normally expressed through the acts of the legislature, and not through decisions issued by the courts.” Wehr, 384 S.W.3d at 687. “[P]ublic policy, invoked to bar the enforcement of a contract, is not simply something courts establish from general considerations of supposed public interest, but rather something that must be found clearly expressed in the applicable law.” State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Hodgkiss–Warrick, 413 S.W.3d 875, 881 (Ky.2013).
B. UIM Coverage 4
Because determining the public policy of the Commonwealth is the General Assembly's prerogative, we must examine the particular statutes at issue to divine any overriding public interests that would prevent the parties from agreeing to the limitations period at issue. In doing so, we must carefully consider and balance the public policy concerns at issue with the freedom to contract. “[A] contract term is unenforceable on public policy grounds only if the policy asserted against it is clearly manifested by legislation or judicial decision and is sufficiently strong to override the very substantial policies in favor of the freedom of contract and the enforcement of private agreements.” Hodgkiss–Warrick, 413 S.W.3d at 880.
Kentucky's UIM statute, KRS 304.39–320, is contained within the MVRA. In relevant part, it provides:
2) Every insurer shall make available upon request to its insureds underinsured motorist coverage, whereby subject to the terms and conditions of such coverage not inconsistent with this section the insurance company agrees to pay its own insured for such uncompensated damages as he may recover on account of injury due to a motor vehicle accident because the judgment recovered against the owner of the other vehicle exceeds the liability policy limits thereon, to the extent of the underinsurance policy limits on the vehicle of the party recovering.
KRS 304.39–320(2). The statute defines an underinsured motorist as a “party with motor vehicle liability insurance coverage in an amount less than a judgment recovered against that party for damages on account of injury due to a motor vehicle accident.” KRS 304.39–320(1).
While Kentucky requires all motorists to purchase minimum general liability insurance, it does not require motorists to purchase UIM coverage. Rather, under the MVRA, insurers must simply offer UIM coverage to their insureds. The choice whether to purchase UIM coverage belongs to the insured alone. If an insured decides to purchase UIM coverage, the nature and extent of coverage are generally governed by the contract of insurance.
As part of the MVRA, the UIM statute “is remedial legislation which should be generally construed to accomplish [the MVRA's] stated purposes.” Motorists Mut. Ins. Co. v. Glass, 996 S.W.2d 437, 457 (Ky.1997). Examining the statutory purpose of the MVRA, our Supreme Court has expressly recognized “a public policy of broad UIM coverage, the purpose of which is to provide full recovery for the insured[.]” Philadelphia Indem. Ins. Co. v. Morris, 990 S.W.2d 621, 627 (Ky.1999). “The reasonable expectation of the average person who purchases UIM coverage is that she will be entitled to UIM benefits if she is struck by another driver whose liability limits are not sufficient to satisfy her damages.” Windham v. Cunningham, 902 S.W.2d 838, 841 (Ky.App.1995).
C. Statute of Limitations for UIM Claims
“[A] ‘suit to recover UIM coverage is a direct action’ against the UIM carrier and ‘the [UIM] carrier alone is the real party in interest [.]’ “ Philadelphia Indem., 990 S.W.2d at 625 (quoting Coots, 853 S.W.2d at 903). The rationale for this distinction is that a UIM suit sounds in contract, not tort. See Kentucky Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co.v. Ryan, 177 S.W.3d 797 (Ky.2005) (holding that because a UIM action is based in contract, any payment by a UIM insurer is necessarily made in performance of a contractual obligation and cannot be characterized as payment of legal damages pursuant to tort liability).
Based on the rationale that UIM claims sound in contract, not tort, our courts apply the limitations period set forth in KRS 413.090(2) for written contracts when an insured is seeking recovery of UIM benefits from her insurer.5 Gordon v. Kentucky Farm Bureau Ins. Co., 914 S.W.2d 331 (Ky.1995). Nevertheless, our courts have been clear that insurance provisions may shorten this period so long as the shortened period is reasonable and not in violation of public policy. Webb v. Kentucky Farm Bureau Ins. Co., 577 S.W.2d 17 (Ky.App.1978).
Less clear is what period of time is reasonable under any given contractual provision, particularly those involving UIM coverage. In Elkins v. Kentucky Farm Bureau Mut. Ins., Co., 844 S.W.2d 423 (Ky.App.1992), we were asked to consider the reasonableness of a contractual limitations provision shortening the time period for a uninsured motorist (“UM”) claim to one year from the date of the loss.6 Id. at 424. While we recognized that Webb generally permitted parties to contract for shorter limitations provisions, we concluded that Webb's approval of a one-year limitations period in a homeowner's policy for fire damage was inapposite when dealing with UM/UIM claims. Id. (“Comparing Webb to the situation before us is like comparing the proverbial oranges and apples.”). We explained “the rights under a fire insurance policy can be ascertained on the date of the loss or soon thereafter, and one year is not an unreasonably short time to require that a suit be commenced,” but UM/UIM claims cannot necessarily be identified at the time of the accident and may not come to light until after the insured has filed suit against the tortfeasor. Id. Ultimately, we held that any period shorter than the two-year period for bringing a tort claim under the MVRA was presumptively invalid and void as against public policy because it would inhibit an insured's right to utilize coverage that the MVRA requires insurers to offer to all motorists in Kentucky.7 Id. We stated:
Although this section [of the MVRA] does not mandate the acceptance of uninsured motorist coverage, it does mandate the offering of this coverage. Once the policyholder has determined his need, or desire, for such coverage and has paid the premiums for such coverage, the terms of the contract may not unduly or unreasonably restrict his utilization of this coverage. The Farm Bureau contract unduly restricts the availability of the benefits of this insurance.
Three years later, the Kentucky Supreme Court accepted discretionary review in Gordon. Gordon, 914 S. W.2d at 332. Gordon involved a contractual limitations period identical to the period that the Elkins court struck down as unreasonable. While the Gordon court agreed with Elkins that a period shorter than the period contained in the MVRA was unreasonable, it did not hold that a period mirroring the MVRA would be reasonable. Much to the contrary, the Gordon court explicitly stated that it would be “illogical to adopt a general rule which would require a plaintiff to sue his own insurer before discovering whether or not the tort-feasor is in fact an uninsured motorist.” Id. at 332. The Gordon court reaffirmed that while insurance companies may contract for shorter limitations periods, such periods of time “must be ‘reasonable’ as required under Elkins, which required at least two years to file a contractual claim.” Id. at 333. The Court cautioned that the reasonableness of the period “is not a result of the similar period provided for the MVRA.” Id.
Read together, Elkins and Gordon stand for the proposition that any contractual limitations period for UM/UIM claims less than two years from the date of the accident is unreasonable. However, they do not address specifically when a breach of contract action for UM/UIM coverage accrues or whether a contractual limitations period for a UM/UIM claim that mirrors the two-year period for bringing a tort-based claim under the MVRA is reasonable.
Against this backdrop, we decided Riggs v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co.,–S.W.3d–, 2013 WL 3778143 (Ky.App. July 19, 2013)(2012–CA–000354–MR).8 The UIM limitations provision in Riggs is identical to the limitations provision at issue in this case. Presupposing that the accrual period for a UIM claim begins on the date of the accident at issue, the parties in Riggs focused on the reasonableness of the time period an insured had to file a UIM claim post-accident. Relying heavily on Gordon, the insured argued that a limitations provision for a UIM claim that mirrors the statute of limitations period for pursuing a tort claim under the MVRA is unreasonable because it could require suit to be filed before the insured even had knowledge that the tortfeasor was uninsured or underinsured. The insurer countered that a limitations provision for a UIM claim would be valid so long as it was no shorter than the limitations period for a tort claim under the MVRA.
Guided by Gordon's logic, we held that it would be unreasonable to include a policy provision that required an insured to bring a UIM claim before or simultaneous with a tort claim because the insured might not discover the existence of her UIM claim until discovery was commenced in the underlying tort action. Our concern was that identical statutes of limitations could, in many instances, require insureds to file protective, potentially unnecessary UIM claims. We explained:
Until an injured party files suit against the alleged tortfeasor and engages in discovery to ascertain the limits of the tortfeasor's liability insurance, the injured party cannot determine whether the tortfeasor is indeed an underinsured motorist. This is so because the UIM carrier's liability, and the amount and limits of that liability, is predicated upon the prior determination of the shortfall between the insured's claimed damages and the coverage of those damages available under the tortfeasor's policy of insurance. G & J Pepsi–Cola Bottlers, Inc. v. Fletcher, 229 S.W.3d 915, 918 (Ky.App.2007) (“UIM carrier's liability is measured by the liability of the tortfeasor.”); Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. Samples, 192 S.W.3d 311, 315 (Ky.2006) (“The tortfeasor's liability insurance is the primary coverage, and the UIM insurance is the secondary or excess coverage[.]”). Stated differently, the UIM carrier can only be held liable for those damages exceeding the limits of the tortfeasor's liability insurance. Until the injured party discovers those limits, he or she cannot conclusively discern whether the tortfeasor is underinsured. While, of course, a tortfeasor or his insurance carrier may freely notify the injured party of the tortfeasor's liability policy limits, we know of no statute or procedural rule that compels a tortfeasor or his insurance company to do so absent a proper discovery request.
․ [T]he limitation has the possibility of compelling an injured party to file a protective suit against the carrier before the two years elapses, even though a prior suit against the tortfeasor might not yet have yielded discovery that would disclose any need to pursue UIM coverage, i.e., “before discovering whether or not the tort-feasor is in fact an uninsured [or underinsured] motorist.” Gordon, 914 S.W.2d at 332. To require the filing of a protective lawsuit is not only unreasonable, it is a waste of legal and judicial resources. See Brown, 189 F.Supp.2d at 671 (declaring “it unreasonable to require an insured to sue her insurer for underinsured motorist benefits prior to being required to sue the tortfeasor, and thus to determine whether or not the tortfeasor is in fact underinsured”). It could also create an issue under CR 11.
Riggs at *5.
Upon first blush, it might appear that this case is identical to Riggs. However, the subtle difference is the arguments presented by the parties. As noted, the parties in Riggs presupposed that a UIM claim accrues on the date of the accident at issue. As such, in Riggs we focused merely on whether it was reasonable for the insured to shorten the limitations period to coincide with the period for bringing a tort-based claim under the MVRA. In the present case, however, Hensley makes the additional argument that a UIM claim is contract-based and, therefore, does not accrue until there has been a breach of the contract of insurance. This is an important and fundamentally different argument.
Hensley is not asserting that a two-year limitations period is an unreasonable amount of time in which to pursue a UIM claim. Her argument is that the reasonableness of the period must be measured, not from the date of the accident, but rather, from the breach of the contract because this is the date of accrual. She argues that in her case the breach occurred on November 4, 2011, when State Farm denied her claim.
D. Accrual of UIM Claims
To properly address Hensley's arguments, we must first determine when a breach of contract cause of action for a UIM claim accrues in the ordinary course. This is an issue of first impression in Kentucky. Having surveyed the law, we have identified three different approaches for determining the UIM accrual date: (1) the date that the insurance company allegedly breaches the insurance contract by denying the insured's UIM claim; (2) the date of the accident; or (3) the date that the insured settles with or obtains judgment against the tortfeasor, thereby exhausting the limits of the tortfeasor's liability coverage.9 See Jeffrey A. Kelso and Matthew R. Drevlow, When Does the Clock Start Ticking? Primer on Statutory and Contractual Time Limitation Issues Involved in Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Claims, 47 Drake L.Rev. 689 (1999).
The overwhelming majority of jurisdictions that have confronted this issue have concluded that a UIM claim accrues when the insurer breaches the insurance contract by denying the insured's claim for benefits.10 The reasoning behind this theory is that because a claim for UIM benefits is a first-party claim, based in contract instead of tort, the limitations period begins to run on the date that the insurance contract is breached. Generally, these courts have determined that the insurer breaches the contract when it denies the insured's claim for UIM benefits. As explained recently by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island:
[W]e are satisfied that the insured is not injured by his or her UM/UIM carrier and, therefore, has no right to seek judicial relief against the insurer unless and until the insurer breaches the insurance contract. That breach does not occur until the insurer refuses payment (or arbitration if applicable). A UM/UIM cause of action accrues on the date of the breach.
LaFlam, 69 A.3d at 841.
A handful of jurisdictions have adopted a middle-ground approach based on a form of the discovery rule used in tort cases. These jurisdictions hold that a UIM claim accrues when the insured settles with or receives a judgment against the tortfeasor, thereby exhausting the general liability policy covering the tortfeasor.11 Jurisdictions adopting this approach rationalize that it is most consistent with the statutory definition of an underinsured motorist as one whose coverage is insufficient to satisfy a judgment. See Yocherer, 643 N.W.2d at 465.
Finally, a minority of jurisdictions begin running the statute of limitations on the date of the underlying accident.12 The reasoning behind this theory is that the insured's claim for UIM benefits derives from the tort claim against the underinsured tortfeasor and that the insurer essentially stands in the shoes of the tortfeasor. See Kilbreath, 419 So.2d at 634.
Having reviewed the various approaches and their underlying rationales, we believe that the majority approach is most consistent with Kentucky's historical treatment of UIM claims as contract claims. Kentucky has consistently regarded UIM claims as distinct claims that are separate and apart from tort claims.
It makes logical sense to run the statute of limitations for a tort-based claim from the date of injury. This is the date that the insured has an actionable claim. The same cannot be said for a UIM claim. The date of the accident may set the chain of events in motion, but it is not the defining event. The defining event is the date the UIM carrier denies the insured's claim for benefits. This is the date upon which the insured's breach of contract claim against its own insurer accrues.
We acknowledge that the middle-ground approach has some appeal. This approach is grounded on the insured's knowledge of his or her right to make a demand for UIM benefits with the carrier. However, knowledge that one has the right to seek benefits under a contract is not tantamount to having knowledge that the other party to the contract will fail to perform under the contract. The failure or manifested unwillingness to perform is the act that gives rise to the claim, not the presence of the right under the contract. Indeed, affirmative knowledge of an inability or unwillingness to perform under a contract is the basis behind the doctrine of anticipatory repudiation, which permits a party to file suit before the actual time for performance under the contract. Combs v. International Ins. Co., 354 F.3d 568, 601 (6th Cir.2004). An insured that merely knows he or she has a potential UIM claim certainly cannot be said to know whether the insurer will deny that claim.13 See Texas v. U.S., 523 U.S. 296, 300, 118 S.Ct. 1257, 1259, 140 L.Ed.2d 406 (1998) (“A claim is not ripe for adjudication if it rests upon contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all.”) (Internal quotations omitted).
“It is a cardinal principle in the construction of statutes of limitation, which has been recognized from the beginning, that the statute does not begin to run against the plaintiff until his cause of action accrues.” Chatterson v. City of Louisville, 140 S.W. 647, 648 (Ky.1911). Pursuant to KRS 413.090(2), the statute of limitations for breach of a written contract expires fifteen years (or ten years depending on the date of execution) “after the cause of action first accrued.” “The term ‘accrues' is easily defined in contract cases. A contract action accrues when the time for performance is reached or the contract is breached.” Ky. L. of Damages § 12:14 (2014 ed.); see also Finley v. Thomas, 107 S.W .2d 287, 288 (Ky.1937) (“Limitations do not start from the making of a contract, but from the date of its promised performance.”); Hoskins' Adm'r v. Kentucky Ridge Coal Co., 305 S.W.2d 308, 311 (Ky.1957) (“Usually an action accrues at the time of infliction of a wrong or breach of a contract.”) “Under Kentucky law, in order to recover in any action based on breach of a contract, a plaintiff must show the existence and the breach of a contractually imposed duty.” See Kentucky Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. v. Blevins, 268 S.W.3d 368, 374 (Ky.App.2008).
Until such time as the insured demands payment of UIM benefits under the policy and the insurer denies such demand, there has been no breach of the insurance contract by the insurer. Accordingly, we conclude that under Kentucky law the statute of limitations for a UIM claim accrues on the date the insurer denies UIM coverage and communicates that denial to the insured. In the absence of any contractual provisions to the contrary, we hold that an insured has fifteen years (or ten years depending on the date the contract was executed) from the date of the denial to assert a breach of contract claim for UIM coverage against the insurer.
We are not unsympathetic to State Farm's concerns about stale claims, delay, and uncertainty. However, the law is not without a solution to these concerns.
An insurance company can require the insured to make a claim or notice of potential claim within a certain period of time without requiring the insured to file suit against the insurer. And, as we have previously observed, once insurance companies have received notice of a claim, they “are not forced to stand by helplessly as memories fade and physical evidence is lost,” but are “entitled to bring declaratory judgment actions to determine coverage at their own convenience.” [Internal citations omitted].
McDonnell, 299 P.3d at 728. Furthermore, the economic realities of UIM claims make most such concerns more imaginary than real. “We are hard-pressed to envision a scenario in which an insured who is in need of benefits and who has a viable UM/UIM claim ․ would delay asserting the claim and remain less than fully compensated any longer than necessary.” LaFlam, 69 A.3d at 842.
E. KRS 304.14–370
Having determined that under Kentucky law the statute of limitations for a UIM claim accrues on the date the insurer denies UIM coverage and communicates that denial to the insured, we must now consider another provision in Kentucky's Insurance Code, KRS 304 .14–370, as it bears directly on the reasonableness of the two-year policy provision at issue. It provides:
No conditions, stipulations or agreements in a contract of insurance shall deprive the courts of this state of jurisdiction of actions against foreign insurers, or limit the time for commencing actions against such insurers to a period of less than one (1) year from the time when the cause of action accrues.
(Emphasis added). “A ‘foreign’ insurer is one formed under the laws of any state, other than this state.” KRS 304.1–.070(2).
Hensley alleged in her complaint that State Farm is domiciled in Illinois, an allegation that State Farm admitted in its answer.14 The record, therefore, supports the conclusion that State Farm is a foreign insurer subject to KRS 304.14–370. State Farm denied Hensley's claim for UIM benefits on November 4, 2011. She filed her breach of contract suit against State Farm on January 24, 2012, within a year of State Farm's denial of her UIM claim. Enforcing the contractual limitations provision against Hensley in this instance would run afoul of KRS 304.14–370 under our determination that a UIM claim accrues on the date of breach because it would act to bar Hensley's claim.
However, because the word “accrues” is not defined in KRS 304.14–370 or elsewhere in Kentucky's Insurance Code, we must decide whether there is any basis for concluding that the UIM claim “accrued” at the time of the accident/injury.
In discerning legislative intent, “[w]e derive that intent, if at all possible, from the language the General Assembly chose, either as defined by the General Assembly or as generally understood in the context of the matter under consideration.” Shawnee Telecom Resources, Inc. v. Brown, 354 S.W.3d 542, 551 (Ky.2011). Our General Assembly requires that when we interpret its statutes, we shall give words that have “acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law ․ such meaning.” KRS 446.080(4); Revenue Cabinet v. JRS Data Systems, Inc., 738 S.W.2d 828, 829 (Ky.App.1987) (“Ordinarily, we are bound to construe all statutory words and phrases according to the common and approved usage of the language. However, words which have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law must be construed according to such other meaning.”) (Citing KRS 446.080).
We have carefully surveyed the law. In so doing, we conclude that the word “accrues,” when used in relation to a cause of action, had distinct and defined meaning under the law in 1970 when the General Assembly enacted KRS 304.14–370. At that time, the law was clear and well-settled that a cause of action only accrued when each element giving rise to the cause of action had come to fruition. See Henderson v. Fielder, 215 S.W. 187, 188 (Ky.1919) (“The accrual of a cause of action means the right to institute and maintain a suit, and, whenever one person may sue another, a cause of action has accrued, and the statute begins to run.”); City of Covington v. Patterson, 230 S.W. 542, 543 (Ky.1921) (“So the question first to be determined is, when did the appellant's cause of action accrue? Obviously, it arose or accrued when it had the right to sue to enforce the payment of its claims now attempted to be recovered.”); Smith v. Smith, 21 S.W.2d 246, 247 (Ky.1929) (“Where a party's right depends upon the happening of a certain event in the future, the cause of action accrues and the statute begins to run only from the time when the event happens.”); Jordan v. Howard, 54 S.W.2d 613, 615 (Ky.1932) (“Statutes of limitations are based on the accrual of a right of action and, therefore, begin to run from the time the cause or the foundation of the right came into existence.”); Carter v. Harlan Hosp. Ass'n, 97 S.W.2d 9, 10 (Ky.1936) (“A cause of action accrues when a party has the right and capacity to sue [.]”); Harlan v. Buckley, 103 S.W.2d 946, 948 (Ky.1936) (“Buckley's cause of action is based on an implied promise of Harlan to repay the money paid by mistake and it accrues when the money is paid.”); Forwood v. City of Louisville, 140 S.W.2d 1048, 1051 (Ky.1940) (“Where a party's right depends upon the happening of a certain event in the future, the cause of action accrues and the statute begins to run only from the time when the event happens.”) (Emphasis in original).
We have found no persuasive Kentucky authority suggesting that, for the purpose of KRS 304.14–370, a cause of action could “accrue” by agreement before it ripened under the law.15 It would fundamentally distort the common law definition of “accrues” and the legislative intent behind KRS 304.14–370 to allow the insurer to define the accrual date for a UIM breach of contract claim to run from the date of the accident or injury.
Furthermore, we believe that even if we were to limit our consideration to the terms of the contract, the result would be the same. The contract limits the insured's right to bring UIM claims not commenced within “two (2) years after the injury, death or the last basic reparations payment made by any reparations obligor, whichever later occurs.” However, it also defines when the insured is to pursue a UIM claim against the insurer.
4. SECTION III—UNINSURED MOTOR VEHICLE—COVERAGE U AND UNDERINSURED MOTOR VEHICLE–COVERAGE W
b. Deciding Fault and Amount—Uninsured Motor Vehicle–Coverage and Underinsured Motor Vehicle Coverage W
1. a. The insured and we must agree to the answers to the following two questions:
(1) Is the insured legally entitled to collect compensatory damages from the owner or driver of the uninsured motor vehicle or underinsured motor vehicle?
(2) If the answer to 1.a(1) above is yes, then what is the amount of the compensatory damages that the insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of the uninsured motor vehicle or underinsured motor vehicle?
b. If there is no agreement on the answer to either question in 1.a. above, then the insured shall:
(1) file a lawsuit, in a state or federal court that has jurisdiction, against us.
The most logical reading of this provision is that the insured's UIM claim ripens or accrues under the policy when State Farm disagrees as to either the applicability of UIM coverage or the amount of damages that the insured suffered. In other words, State Farm must deny a claim based on either the existence or amount of coverage available before the insured has a right to file a UIM claim against it. It is only upon this disagreement that the insured's breach of contract claim accrues under the policy.
The provision preventing the insured from filing an UIM action after more than two years from the injury date does not define the accrual period; it acts more like a statute of repose. Our Supreme Court recently explained the relationship between periods of repose and the accrual date: “Statutes of limitations limit the time in which a plaintiff may bring suit after a cause of action accrues, whereas statutes of repose [begin at a fixed point in time and, therefore, may] potentially bar the plaintiff's suit before the cause of action arises.” Abel v. Austin, 411 S.W.3d 728, 736 (Ky.2013) (quoting McCollum v. Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Health Corp., 799 S.W.2d 15, 18 (Ky.1990)).
The two-year period relied upon by State Farm is a provision of repose that triggers running the limitations period prior to accrual, but the contract is clear that the insured's UIM claim does not ripen or accrue until the insured and State Farm disagree as to either the applicability or amount of coverage.
Pursuant to its lawmaking authority to regulate insurance, our General Assembly has prohibited the enforcement of any policy provision by a foreign insurer that cuts off or bars a claim within a year of its accrual.16 KRS 304.14–370. We believe that in enacting KRS 304.14–370, the General Assembly intended the word “accrues” to reference the right to bring an action under the common law. Furthermore, we find that under the most logical reading of State Farm's own policy of insurance, the insured's UIM claim does not accrue at the time of the accident or injury, but rather at the time the insured and the insurer disagree as to either the applicability or amount of UIM coverage under the policy.
State Farm denied Hensley's claim on November 4, 2011. Pursuant to KRS 304.14–370, our General Assembly has explicitly declared that any contractual provision that would work to cut off her right to file a breach of contract suit against State Farm, a foreign insurer, prior to November 4, 2012, a year from the date of breach, is unreasonable and unenforceable. Accordingly, we must reverse the Jefferson Circuit Court's judgment in favor of State Farm and remand this claim for adjudication on its merits.
Because of State Farm's status as a foreign insurer, our consideration of the reasonableness of its two-year limitations provision is guided by a clear and explicit legislative directive. We do not attempt to decide today whether the provision would have been enforceable against Hensley if her policy was issued by a domestic insurer. While we held in Riggs that such a provision was not reasonable, Riggs did not ask us to assess reasonableness in relation to the accrual date of a UIM claim. Courts considering the enforceability of such provisions in light of the accrual date have reached differing outcomes.17
For the reasons set forth above, we reverse the Jefferson Circuit Court's judgment in favor of State Farm and remand this claim for additional proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
Respectfully, I disagree with the majority opinion. Rather, my view aligns with the dissenting view expressed in Riggs v. State Farm Mut., Ins. Co., ––– S.W.3d ––––, 2013 WL 3778143 (Ky.App. July 19, 2013)(2012–CA–000354–MR),18 stating that “a time limitation that dovetails with the limitation contained in KRS 304.39–230 is reasonable and comports with public policy.” Id. at *5 (citing Pike v. Gov't Employees Ins. Co., 174 Fed.Appx. 311, 316 (6th Cir.2006)). Moreover, I agree with the trial court in this matter that “there is a solid line of case law in Kentucky that upholds the validity of contractual terms that provide for shorter limitation periods than the general statute of limitations.” (Trial court opinion at page 3) (quoting Webb v. Kentucky Farm Bureau Ins. Co., 577 S.W.3d 17, 19 (Ky.App.1978)). Accordingly, I would affirm.
1. FN1. Kentucky Revised Statutes.
2. In Coots v. Allstate Ins. Co., 853 S.W.2d 895 (Ky.1993), the Kentucky Supreme Court outlined the procedure for an underinsured motorist carrier to protect its subrogation rights when its insured proposes to settle with the tortfeasor. This letter is often referred to as a “Coots letter.” The Coots procedure is now codified in KRS 304.39–320.
3. The policies provide:Underinsured Motor Vehicle—means a land motor vehicle:1. the ownership maintenance or use of which is insured or bonded for bodily injury liability at the time of the accident with limits equal to or greater than required by Kentucky law; but2. the limits of liability that apply from such vehicle to the insured's damages are less than a judgment recovered against a liable party for damages on account of bodily injury due to a motor vehicle accident. [Emphasis in original].
4. UIM coverage has become widely available in the United States as the result of legislative efforts to provide compensation to insured motorists injured by underinsured at-fault drivers who fail to carry adequate liability insurance. See 9 Couch on Insurance § 122:2. While a traditional general liability policy protects an insured from liability to third parties, UIM coverage “is not liability insurance in any sense [.]” Id. Rather, UIM coverage is first-party coverage; it allows an insured to collect a payment from her insurer for injury suffered as a result of the actions of an at-fault underinsured motorist. Id.
5. At the time the parties entered into the insurance contract at issue, the statute of limitations for written contracts was fifteen years. The General Assembly recently amended KRS 413.090(2) to shorten the limitations period to ten years. The amendment applies to “action[s] upon a written contract executed after the effective date of this Act [July 15, 2014] unless otherwise provided by statute[.]”
6. The Kentucky Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that “UM and UIM coverage should be treated similarly as the purpose and intent of their coverages is similar.” Earle v. Cobb, 156 S.W.3d 257, 260 (Ky.2004).
7. The MVRA requires that a tort-based action be pursued within two years of the date of the accident or the last PIP payment, whichever is later. KRS 304.39–230(6) (“An action for tort liability not abolished by KRS 304.39–060 may be commenced not later than two (2) years after the injury, or the death, or the last basic or added reparation payment made by any reparation obligor, whichever later occurs.”)
8. The Kentucky Supreme Court granted State Farm's petition for discretionary review in Riggs on June 11, 2014.
9. We have concentrated our review on those jurisdictions that, like Kentucky, do not have specific statutes that govern the accrual of UIM claims. We pause to note that several jurisdictions have adopted specific statutes governing the accrual date and statute of limitations period for UIM claims. See California Insurance Code § 11580.2(i)(1)(A)-(C); Louisiana Revised Statutes § 9:5629; Hawaii Revised Statutes § 431:10C–315; Colorado Revised Statutes § 13–80–107.5(3); Oregon Revised Statutes § 742.504(12)(a). Such statutes are of enormous utility to the courts, the insurers, and the public as they provide certainty and allow the legislature to select an accrual date and limitations period that comports with the overall purpose behind its legislative scheme. “[P]erhaps [Kentucky's] General Assembly may consider legislation creating a statute of limitations for [UM/UIM] contractual claims.” Gordon, 914 S.W.2d at 333 n. 1.
10. See McDonnell v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 299 P.3d 715 (Ala.2013); Blutreich v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 826 P.2d 1167, 1170 (Ariz.1991); Shelter Mut. Ins. Co. v. Nash, 184 S.W.3d 425, 430–31 (Ark.2004); Allstate Ins. Co. v. Spinelli, 443 A.2d 1286, 1287 (Del.1982); Norfleet v. Safeway Ins. Co., 494 N.E.2d 720, 722 (Ill.1986); Whitten v. Concord Gen. Mut. Ins. Co., 647 A.2d 808, 810 (Me.1994); Lane v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 582 A.2d 501, 506 (Md.App.1990); Berkshire Mut. Ins. Co. v.. Burbank, 664 N.E.2d 1188, 1191 (Mass.1996); Jacobs v. Detroit Auto. Inter–Insurance Exchange, 309 N.W.2d 627, 630 (Mich.1981); Brooks v. State Farm Ins. Co., 154 P.3d 697, 703 (N.M.App.2007); Snyder v. Case, 611 N.W.2d 409, 416 (Neb.2000); Wille v. Geico Cas. Co., 2 P.3d 888, 892 (Okla.2000); American States Ins. Co. v. LaFlam, 69 A.3d 831, 844 (R.I.2013); Safeco Ins. Co. v. Barcom, 773 P.2d 56, 59 (Wash.1989); Plumley v. May, 434 S.E.2d 406, 410 (W.Va.1993); Alvarez v. American General Fire and Cas. Co., 757 S.W.2d 156, 158 (Tex.App.1988).
11. See Connecticut Coelho v. ITT Hartford, 752 A.2d 1063, 1066 (Conn.1999); Vaughn v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 445 So.2d 224, 227(Miss.1984); Westchester Fire Ins. Co. v. Imperiale, 598 N.Y.S.2d 685, 686 (N.Y.1993); Register v. White, 599 S.E.2d 549, 555 (N.C.2004); Oanes v. Allstate Ins. Co., 617 N.W.2d 401, 406 (Minn.2000); Hopkins v. Erie Ins. Co., 65 A.3d 452, 459 (Pa.Super.2013); Yocherer v. Farmers Ins. Exch., 643 N.W.2d 457, 465 (Wis.2002).
12. See State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Kilbreath, 419 So.2d 632, 633 (Fla.1982); Georgia Commercial Union Ins. Co. v. Wraggs, 284 S.E.2d 19, 21 (Ga.App.1981); Green v. Selective Ins. Co. of Am., 676 A.2d 1074, 1077 (1996).
13. Indeed, insurers, including State Farm, often move for dismissal of UM/UIM claims that are filed before the insurer has denied the claim on the basis that such claims are premature. See e.g., Broadway v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 2014 WL 1044131 (M.D.Ala. March 19, 2014) (2:13–cv–628–MEF).
14. Both the complaint and answer are part of the record before us. Additionally, we observe that the Kentucky Department of Insurance's website indicates that State Farm is an Illinois insurer authorized to do business in Kentucky. See https://insurance.ky .gov. A court may properly take judicial notice of public records and government documents, including public records and government documents available from reliable sources on the internet. Polley v. Allen, 132 S.W.3d 223, 226 (Ky.App.2004).
15. We are aware that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Smith v. Allstate Ins. Co., 403 F.3d 401, 405 (6th Cir.2005), “that a cause of action on an insurance policy can accrue, under Kentucky law, before maturation of the insured's right to sue.” We are not bound by federal authority that applies Kentucky law. While we may look to such law for guidance, we do not believe that Smith provides such guidance in this instance. As recognized by Judge Rosen in his dissenting opinion, the majority in Smith failed to give full effect to the long line of Kentucky cases defining when an action accrues under the law and relied on case law that predated or failed to consider KRS 304.14–370.In reaching this conclusion, the majority relies upon Kentucky decisions which pre-date KRS § 304.14–370 and/or neither discuss, nor even refer to, the statute. In my view, the plain language of the statute should control, and since the Smiths could not have sued Allstate for breach of contract until their insurance claim was denied by the insurer, their suit—which was filed within four months of Allstate's denial of their claim—should not have been deemed time-barred by Allstate's contractual provision which, by its terms, would deem Plaintiffs' action barred five months before they could have brought suit. In my view, this result runs afoul of the obvious legislative intent of KRS § 304.14–370.․Here, the intent of the Kentucky legislature in using the language “from the time when a cause of action accrues,” is clear. The phrase has a plain and ordinary meaning. Both the Kentucky Court of Appeals and the Kentucky Supreme Court have stated that “the accrual of a cause of action means the right to institute and maintain a suit.” City of Covington v. Patterson, 191 Ky. 370, 230 S.W. 542, 543 (1921)․ Plaintiffs here could not have filed suit until Allstate rendered an adverse decision on their insurance claim. Had Plaintiffs filed suit before Allstate denied their claim, Allstate surely would have quickly moved for dismissal of the suit as premature.Id. at 408–09 (J. Rosen, dissenting). Other courts have distinguished or similarly criticized the Smith majority. See Tennant v. Tennant, 2006 WL 319046, at *7 (E.D.Ky. Feb. 10, 2006)(04–54)(“The language of KRS 304.14–370 is clear and unambiguous. It prevents a foreign insurer from limiting the time for filing an action against it to a period of less than one year after the cause of action accrues. It is equally clear that a bad faith action such as the one at issue here that is based on the insurer's denial of a claim, cannot accrue until the time of denial.”).
16. We note that the United States Supreme Court rejected the contention that a state statute that invalidates only limitations provisions in policies issued by foreign insurers violates the Equal Protection Clause. Metropolitan Cas. Ins. Co. of New York v. Brownell, 294 U.S. 580, 585–86, 55 S.Ct. 538, 541, 79 L.Ed. 1070 (1935). The Court held that the state has a rational basis for imposing different limitations provisions on foreign insurers than domestic ones. Id. at 585, S.Ct at 541(“Where the record is silent, we cannot presume to declare that there is such similarity, or to say that a state is prohibited from making any distinction in the length of time within which suit must be brought. It is not beyond the range of probability that foreign casualty companies, as distinguished from domestic companies, generally keep their funds and maintain their business offices, and their agencies for the settlement of claims, outside the state.”)
17. Several courts have rejected such provisions as unreasonable because they operate to cut off UIM claims before the insured even has reason to know whether he or she may have such a claim. See, e.g., McDonnell, 299 P.3d at 733 (“[W]e hold that to the extent State Farm's contractual two-year limitation provision purports to trigger the commencement of the limitations period before an insured's cause of action against the insurance company has accrued, the policy provision is unreasonable and unenforceable.”) Other courts have approved such provisions reckoning that they allow the insured a sufficient amount of time to file suit. See Robinson v. Allied Property and Cas. Ins. Co., 816 N.W.2d 398, 405 (Iowa 2012) (“We hold it is reasonable, as a matter of law, for a UIM insurer to select the same two-year deadline from the date of the accident to file a UIM claim as the legislature prescribed for filing a personal injury tort action.”)
18. Riggs is not yet final, as the Kentucky Supreme Court granted discretionary review on June 11, 2014. It is cited only in this dissent to point out agreement with the rationale articulated in the dissenting view therein, not as authoritative precedent.
ACREE, Chief Judge, concurs.MOORE, Judge, dissents, and files separate opinion.