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Bjorneby v. Nodak Mutual Insurance Co.

Supreme Court of North Dakota

July 7, 2016

Dean Bjorneby, Keith Bjorneby, Chris Bjorneby, and Josh Bjorneby, Individually, and collectively d/b/a Lone Wolf Farms, Plaintiffs and Appellees
v.
Nodak Mutual Insurance Company and Bryan Hurst, Defendants and Appellants

         Appeal from the District Court of Walsh County, Northeast Judicial District, the Honorable Michael G. Sturdevant, Judge.

          Paul R. Oppegard, for plaintiffs and appellees.

          Michael J. Morley, for defendants and appellants.

          OPINION

          Kapsner, Justice.

         [¶ 1] Nodak Mutual Insurance Company ("Nodak Mutual") and Bryan Hurst (together referred to as "Nodak") appeal from the district court's denial of their motion for judgment as a matter of law and their alternative motion for a new trial. We affirm.

         I

         [¶ 2] The Bjornebys are farmers. They insured their farming operation with a Nodak Mutual insurance policy. Hurst was their insurance agent. During potato harvest, a fire started in the break room of the Bjornebys' potato washing facility. The fire spread and caused substantial damage. The Bjornebys filed an insurance claim, and Nodak Mutual covered a number of losses. Nodak Mutual, however, refused to cover certain potatoes because the Bjornebys reported the potatoes after they became aware of the fire. The Bjornebys sued alleging Nodak Mutual breached their insurance contract and Hurst was negligent. A jury returned a general verdict in the Bjornebys' favor; the verdict did not allocate liability between Nodak Mutual and Hurst. Nodak Mutual and Hurst moved for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a new trial. The district court denied their motions. Both Nodak Mutual and Hurst appeal.

         [¶ 3] Hurst had been the Bjornebys' insurance agent for about four years prior to the fire. He testified he met with the Bjornebys every year and gave them advice on insuring their farming operation. The content of the conversations Hurst had with the Bjornebys during these meetings was disputed at trial. Hurst claimed he had told the Bjornebys about a potato insuring method--bin capacity insurance--that would insure the full capacity of their potato storage facilities during harvest and subsequently prorate premiums when the actual number of potatoes became available. Chris Bjorneby claimed Hurst never mentioned this option; Bjorneby claimed he instructed Hurst to insure all of their harvested potatoes at all times. At the time of the fire, and prior to it, the Bjornebys were insuring their potatoes by periodically reporting the harvested potato count to Hurst. As potatoes were harvested and placed in storage, Chris Bjorneby would call Hurst and update him on the potato count. Hurst would then report the new count to Nodak Mutual. In mid-September 2011, Chris Bjorneby called Hurst and reported the potato count. The fire started on October 7, 2011.

         [¶ 4] Chris Bjorneby testified that when he first saw the break room fire, he did not think it would result in damage to the potatoes. Nonetheless, he quickly called Hurst and reported additional potatoes had been stored since their last call. The content of their brief conversation was disputed at trial. Chris Bjorneby claims Hurst told him the additional potatoes would be covered by Nodak Mutual. Hurst claimed he made no such assertion.

         [¶ 5] Soon after they hung up, the local fire department decided to ventilate the fire; it then became uncontrollable. The washing facility, where the fire started, was in a building separate from the potato storehouse. However, the two buildings were connected by underground water flumes used to move the potatoes from one building to another. The flumes had seals, and the Bjornebys believed they were sealed while the fire was occurring. The fire was ultimately brought under control, but subsequent flare-ups occurred days after it had started. The additional potatoes Chris Bjorneby had reported on the date of the fire were ruined by smoke. It is unclear when they became unusable.

         II

         [¶ 6] Nodak Mutual and Hurst argue the district court erred when it denied their motion for judgment as a matter of law. They claim that, under the known loss doctrine, the potatoes Bjorneby reported on the day of the fire were uninsurable as a matter of law. They also assert Hurst did not breach his duty of care, as a matter of law, and thus he could not be found negligent.

         [¶ 7] A party moving for judgment as a matter of law "is, in effect, claiming that the evidence is insufficient to create a question of fact for the jury. And whether or not the evidence is sufficient to create a question of fact for the jury is itself a question of law to be decided by the trial court." Okken v. Okken, 325 N.W.2d 264, 267 (N.D. 1982). If the trial court determines the evidence does not raise a factual issue to be decided by the jury, the court may grant judgment as a matter of law. Id.

The trial court's decision on a motion brought under N.D.R.Civ.P. 50 to deny or grant judgment as a matter of law is based upon whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the party against whom the motion is made, leads to but one conclusion as to the verdict about which there can be no reasonable difference of opinion. In considering this motion, the trial court must apply a rigorous standard with a view toward preserving a jury verdict, and so must we in our review on appeal. In determining if the evidence is sufficient to create an issue of fact, the trial court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and must accept the truth of the evidence presented by the non-moving party and the truth of ...

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