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Heslop v. Bear River Mutual Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of Utah

January 24, 2017

Natalie Heslop and Brandon Heslop, Appellants,
Bear River Mutual Insurance Company, Appellee.

         On Direct Appeal Third District, Salt Lake The Honorable William W. Barrett No. 150900930

          Ronald E. Dalby, John P. Lowrance, Timothy E. Pettitt, South Jordan, for appellants.

          Kristin A. Van Orman, Jeremy G. Knight, Salt Lake City, for appellee.

          Justice Pearce authored the opinion of the Court in which Chief Justice Durrant, Associate Chief Justice Lee, Justice Durham, and Justice Himonas joined.




         ¶1 Natalie Heslop (Heslop) rolled her truck down an embankment. She told the responding police officer, her family, and medical personnel that the accident had been a suicide attempt. Ten days after the crash, she told an insurance adjuster that her "mind wasn't right, " she had taken "too many pills" the day before the crash, and that the crash was "pretty much a suicide attempt." Her insurance policy provided that it would exclude coverage "to any injured person, if the person's conduct contributed to his injury . . . by intentionally causing injury to himself." The district court granted summary judgment to Bear River Mutual Insurance Company (Bear River) as to both Natalie Heslop's personal injury claim and her husband Brandon Heslop's property damage claim. It also denied the Heslops' request for a continuance to permit additional discovery. We affirm.


         ¶2 On Sunday, October 5, 2014, Heslop overdosed on prescription Ambien and Lexapro. The next day, she decided to drive through Ogden Canyon to "look at the leaves." While in the canyon, Heslop, unseatbelted, rolled her truck down an embankment. She suffered a hairline fracture to her C7 vertebrae. She received a skin graft and stitches over her right eye. She was also admitted to a hospital behavioral unit for several days.

         ¶3 On October 16, a Bear River insurance adjuster called Heslop to question her about the accident. Heslop told the adjuster that her crash in the canyon "was pretty much a suicide attempt." The adjuster asked, "you mean driving off the cliff was a, a suicide attempt?" She responded, "Yeah." The adjuster asked Heslop, "Okay, and then what, you just saw an edge there and decided, you know, this is it?" Again she responded, "Yeah." When the agent asked Heslop if she had admitted to anybody else that her crash was a suicide attempt, she told him, "my whole family knows . . ., I told the police and all the doctors knew."

         ¶4 When the adjuster asked Heslop why she had attempted suicide, she responded, "I had a bad reaction to a medication"; "I was going to the doctors all the time, everyone was just treating me for anxiety and the medications weren't fixing it"; and "without the medication being right my mind wasn't right and, and I, I don't know, I know it wasn't the right choice." She also told the insurance adjuster "I think it's due to my medications not being where they should have been."

         ¶5 Heslop expressed concern that admitting the crash was a suicide attempt would impact her coverage. Her insurance policy's property damage provision covers only "accidental loss of or damage to [a] covered car." And the policy's intentional injury exclusion provision "does not apply ... to any injured person, if the person's conduct contributed to his injury ... by intentionally causing injury to himself."[1]

         ¶6 The Heslops attempted to collect from Bear River under both a personal injury protection (PIP) claim for Heslop's personal injuries and a property damage claim for damage to the truck. But ten days after Heslop's interview with the insurance adjuster, the Heslops received a letter from Bear River denying their claims. Bear River based its denial on Heslop's admission that she intended to drive down the embankment. It explained that because Heslop "admitted to us that she was trying to use the vehicle to intentionally take her life by driving off the cliff, we cannot see how this can be considered 'accidental' loss."

         ¶7 The Heslops asked Bear River to reconsider its decision. In support of their request, the Heslops forwarded a letter from Heslop's psychiatrist, Dr. Ben Holt. Dr. Holt had begun treating Heslop after the incident. Dr. Holt explained that the day before the crash, Heslop had "overdosed on a large amount of Ambien and Lexapro in a suicide attempt." Dr. Holt stated that as a result of ingesting the drugs, Heslop had developed "serotonin syndrome, " which can induce "agitated delirium" and "disorientation, " among other things. Dr. Holt explained that "[s]ome of the irrational behavior [Heslop] experienced, including driving her car off the road[, ] could be contributed [sic] to the serotonin syndrome and possible agitated delirium and disorientation she experienced after the overdose the day prior to the incident."

         ¶8 In February 2015, the Heslops filed a complaint against Bear River alleging breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, statutory relief, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In April, Bear River moved for summary judgment. It argued that both Utah Code section 31A-22-309 and the terms of the insurance policy barred the Heslops' claim. Bear River contended that the Heslops could not be compensated for property damage because the "crash was not accidental in nature, but the result of Ms. Heslop's intentional effort to crash her vehicle." It reasoned that Dr. Holt's letter averring that Heslop's serotonin syndrome "could contribute to 'irrational acts/ . . . did not opine that it did contribute to her act, or more importantly, that [it] negated her intent." Bear River argued, "there is no dispute that Ms. Heslop contributed to her injuries when she intentionally drove her vehicle off the Ogden Canyon roadway in a suicide attempt."

         ¶9 The Heslops opposed Bear River's motion for summary judgment. They contended that "[t]here is a genuine issue of material fact as to whether [Heslop] had the mental capacity to perform an intentional act." The Heslops cited Hoffman v. Life Insurance Company of North America for the proposition that "mental disease or defect of the insured is a relevant consideration in determining whether an insured's [injury] is accidental." 669 P.2d 410, 419 (Utah 1983). They further cited Hoffman for the proposition that

where the insured suffers from a mental disease or defect so that he is not likely to be able to appreciate the consequences of his conduct, or cannot control his conduct in light of the probable consequences, then the test is subjective, and [injury] may be accidental even though a rational person in the same circumstances would have expected [injury] to be the probable result of his conduct.


         ¶10 The Heslops also offered a letter from Dr. Michael Crookston. Dr. Crookston's letter spoke to the likely effects of Ambien on Heslop the day of the crash. He did not interview Heslop, but he reviewed Dr. Holt's letter. Dr. Crookston averred that

[s]ince Ms. Heslop took an overdose of Ambien, any and all statements she may have made concerning subsequent events, including the next day, are immediately suspect and unreliable. Under the influence of an Ambien overdose it is highly likely that Ms. Heslop was impaired cognitively and therefore could not fully appreciate the consequences of her actions or have the ability to fully control her actions.

         ¶11 At the end of their memorandum, the Heslops asked the court for a continuance. The Heslops requested - citing Utah Rule of Civil Procedure 56(f)[2]-additional time to permit "further discovery" into Heslop's "mental state, capacity, the effects of serotonin syndrome, or the effects of large amounts of Ambien and Lexapro to the human system." In support of this request, the Heslops included a sworn affidavit of their attorney. The attorney stated that he believed "additional discovery is required prior to this matter being able to be fully adjudicated on the merits." He opined that he also believed both Dr. Holt and Dr. Crookston "would testify under oath as to the veracity of the information and opinions currently contained in their letters."

         ¶12 The district court granted Bear River's motion for summary judgment. It stated that Heslop's PIP coverage was governed by the Utah statute and the insurance policy's intentional injury exclusion provision. The court noted a Michigan case in which the insured had intentionally crashed his car in a suicide attempt and had introduced an affidavit from a medical professional stating that he was severely depressed, coming off prescription drugs, and lacked the mental capacity to form the intent to commit suicide. Miller v. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 553 N.W.2d 371, 377 (Mich. Ct. App. 1996). The Miller court held that the "intentional acts" clause in the policy prevented the insured from collecting under the policy. Id. The district court adopted the Michigan case's reasoning that "when the evidence unequivocally shows that the insured intended his or her actions, the existence of mental illness does not alter that conclusion." Id.

         ¶13 The district court further reasoned that "Dr. Holt's [letter] did not opine that the Serotonin Syndrome contribute[d] to Mrs. Heslop's act, or that Serotonin Syndrome negated her intent." It further noted that Dr. Crookston's letter did not opine "that [Heslop] was 'sleep driving' at the time she drove off the road, or that she cannot remember what she did." In the end, the court found that the doctors' equivocal statements regarding Heslop's mental status did not sufficiently rebut "the undisputed facts [that] unequivocally show that [Heslop] intended to drive off the road in a suicide attempt."

         ¶14 The district court concluded, "There is no dispute that Mrs. Heslop expected to be injured when she drove off the Ogden Canyon road or that she intended to kill herself. Accordingly, the intentional acts exclusion of the Policy and Utah Code . . . apply in this case." It further concluded that "Brandon Heslop's first-party cause of action against [Bear River] also fails as a matter of law due to the intentional acts exclusion, " because "he is part owner and a named insured of the vehicle, not a third-party victim in this accident" and because Utah law "does not require that Defendant insure itself against loss imposed by the law for damages caused by its named insured." "Rather, " the court stated, "liability falls upon [Heslop], who is also a named insured and the one who caused the damage."


         ¶15 The Heslops contend that the district court erred when it granted summary judgment both "on the issue of Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage" and "on the issue of property damage." We review a grant of summary judgment for correctness. Helf v. Chevron U.S.A. Inc., 2015 UT 81, ¶ 46, 361 P.3d 63. We give no deference to the district court's legal conclusions and consider whether the court correctly decided "that no genuine issue of material fact existed." Id. We "review the facts in a light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment was granted." Larson v. Wycoff Co., 624 P.2d 1151, 1153 (Utah 1981).

         ¶16 The Heslops also contend that the district court abused its discretion when it denied their rule 56(f) motion for a continuance. See Utah R. Civ. P. 56(f) (2014). We review a district court's grant or denial of a rule 56(f) motion for abuse of discretion. Crossland Sav. v. Hatch, 877 P.2d 1241, 1243 (Utah 1994). "[W]e will ...

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