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Avery v. Lahr Agency, LLC

United States District Court, D. North Dakota

August 7, 2019

Kevin A. Avery and Denise M. Avery, a/k/a Denise W. Murdock, as assignees of the Estate of Andrzej Furmanski, Deceased, Plaintiffs,
Lahr Agency, LLC, n/k/a REL Agency, LLC, Defendant.



         I. BACKGROUND

         In October 2012, Avery Enterprises, Inc. (“Avery Enterprises”) purchased a Beechcraft E35 Bonanza aircraft. Avery Enterprises is an oilfield services company doing work in North Dakota's oilfields that is owned by plaintiff Kevin Avery (“Avery”).

         Plaintiffs contend that, within several days of acquiring ownership of the aircraft, Avery contacted his insurance broker, Richard Lahr (“Lahr”), to let him know of the purchase and that he wanted insurance on the aircraft. At that time, Lahr was a principal of defendant Lahr Agency, LLC, and a personal friend of Avery. He is now deceased.

         When Avery first contacted Lahr about insuring the aircraft, he told Lahr there was no particular hurry because the aircraft needed to be certified and this was not going to be done until the following spring. According to Avery, Lahr responded with words to the effect: “Don't worry about it. I'll take care of it.” According to plaintiffs, this conversation took place over a speakerphone. Mrs. Avery, who was listening, recalls Lahr stating: “Don't worry about it. I've got it taken care of.”

         In March or April of 2013, the aircraft needed to be flown to Mandan, North Dakota for the FAA certification. Avery states he contacted Lahr in advance of the flight to confirm insurance coverage. Lahr purportedly assured him by stating “Don't worry about it. I will take care of it.”

         At some point, Avery provided Lahr with a serial number or tail number of the aircraft as well as the background of Andrzej Furmanski (“Furmanski”), whom Avery hired as an employee of Avery Enterprises to pilot the aircraft. Also, while the aircraft was hangared in Mandan following the inspection, Lahr went to the hanger and photographed it.

         According to plaintiffs, Avery again called Lahr from a pickup in April or May 2013 about the status of insurance on the aircraft while Avery, Mrs. Avery, and Avery's cousin, Jeff Avery, were en route to the airport to fly the plane to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Avery states he initiated the call because he had not yet seen any insurance information and the plane was going to be flown that day. According to Avery, Lahr responded not to worry about it and that he had taken care of it. Mrs. Avery and Jeff Avery overheard the conversation, which was on speaker. Mrs. Avery's recollection of the conversation mirrored that of her husband. Jeff Avery's recollection was similar and he recounted: “During the conversation, Mr. Avery asked Mr. Lahr if the plane was insured. Mr. Lahr told him it was taken care of and the plane had insurance coverage.”

         Avery acknowledges that he did not know the amount of liability insurance coverage that Lahr would have procured because he left that up to Lahr's good judgment. Lahr, who was a personal friend of Avery, took care of all of the insurance needs for Avery Enterprises and for Avery personally and Avery similarly relied upon Lahr to determine what coverages, including amounts, were appropriate. According to Avery, the yearly premium for the total package of insurance coverages was over $400, 000. Avery states he could not immediately discern from his insurance billings whether the aircraft had been insured or not because the monthly premium billing for all coverages was in one large lump sum.

         On August 12, 2013, Avery used the aircraft to travel for business purposes from his home in Idaho with an intended destination of Tioga, North Dakota. En route, the aircraft crashed in West Yellowstone, Montana. Furmanski, who was piloting the aircraft, perished. Avery survived the crash but suffered devastating injuries.

         On March 14, 2016, plaintiffs commenced an action in this court against the Furmanski Estate for negligence on the part of Furmanski in piloting the aircraft at the time of the crash. While the Estate appeared in the action, it did not actively assert any defenses it may have had to liability nor did it contest the evidence of fault and damages presented to the court in a less than one-day bench trial on September 8, 2017.

         On November 15, 2017, the court entered an amended judgment against the Furmanski Estate. Based on the uncontested evidence presented, the court awarded plaintiffs $7, 273, 069 ($6, 473, 069 for Mr. Avery and $800, 000 for Mrs. Avery on her consortium claim).

         Subsequent to the entry of judgment, the Furmanski Estate assigned any claims it might have against the defendant for failing to secure coverage on the aircraft and for making false statements relating to the procurement of insurance in exchange for an agreement on the part of plaintiffs not to execute upon the judgment against the Estate. On December 13, 2017, plaintiffs initiated this action against the defendant asserting only the claims obtained from the Furmanski Estate by way of assignment.

         As to the assigned claims, there is no evidence of any communication between Lahr and Furmanski personally. Lahr died on October 7, 2016, prior to the commencement of this action. The only named defendant is the insurance agency of which Lahr was a principal.


         A. Introduction

         Before the court for consideration now are two motions. The first is defendant's motion for summary judgment, which is limited in scope. Upon reviewing the briefs on this motion along with other filings because trial was soon approaching, the court held a conference call with the parties to discuss issues that likely will arise at trial with respect to liability and damages that were not the subject of defendant's motion for summary judgment. This resulted in the court postponing the trial and plaintiffs filing the other motion now pending in which they ask the court to rule in advance of trial on the scope of recoverable damages.

         Before turning to the pending motions, it helpful for purposes of what follows to discuss generally the claims being asserted by plaintiffs as well as the damages they are claiming.

         The complaint in this case alleges claims of negligence and deceit. The facts pled in the complaint with respect to the negligence claim essentially are that Lahr negligently failed to secure insurance on the aircraft on behalf of Avery Enterprises as requested by Avery. Since the claim being asserted is one purportedly belonging originally to Furmanski, the complaint goes on to allege that Lahr's duty to obtain coverage extended to Furmanski as an employee of Avery Enterprises.

         The focus of plaintiffs' deceit claim are the assurances allegedly given by Lahr to Avery that he (Lahr) would secure coverage and later that he had taken care of it. Under North Dakota law, a claim for deceit is statutory. N.D.C.C. § 9-10-03 provides that: “One who willfully deceives another with intent to induce that person to alter that person's position to that person's injury or risk is liable for any damage which that person thereby suffers.” Section 9-10-02 makes actionable as deceit several different kinds of deceptive conduct. It reads as follows:

         § 9-10-02. Deceit--Definition

         A deceit within the meaning of section 9-10-03 is:

1. The suggestion as a fact of that which is not true by one who does not believe it to be true;
2. The assertion as a fact of that which is not true by one who has no reasonable ground for believing it to be true;
3. The suppression of a fact by one who is bound to disclose it, or who gives information of other facts which are likely to mislead for want of communication of that fact; or
4. A promise made without any intention of performing.

         Plaintiffs do not contend in their complaint that Lahr personally assured Furmanski he would secure or had secured insurance coverage. While not entirely clear, it appears plaintiffs have two theories for why that is not required in order to sustain their deceit claim. One is that all that matters is that (1) Lahr tortiously gave false and deceptive assurances to Avery, and (2) this set in motion a series of ...

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