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Torres v. Nevada Direct Ins. Co.

Supreme Court of Nevada

July 30, 2015

SAUNDRA TORRES, Appellant,
v.
NEVADA DIRECT INSURANCE COMPANY, Respondent

Page 1204

Consolidated appeals from a district court judgment in an action by an injured party against an insurance company and a post-judgment order awarding costs. Eighth Judicial District Court, Clark County; Joanna Kishner, Judge.

Ganz & Hauf and Adam Ganz and Marjorie L. Hauf, Las Vegas, for Appellant.

Murchison & Cumming, LLC, and Michael J. Nunez, Douglas J. Duesman, and Dustun H. Holmes, Las Vegas, for Respondent.

Hardesty, C.J. We concur: Parraguirre, J., Douglas, J., Cherry, J., Saitta, J., Gibbons, J., Pickering, J.

OPINION

Page 1205

BEFORE THE COURT EN BANC.

HARDESTY, C.J.:

Appellant sustained injuries in a car accident. After obtaining a default judgment against both the driver and the owner of the other vehicle, appellant sued the owner's insurer to recover upon the judgment under the insurance policy. In this appeal from the district court's take-nothing judgment, we consider whether an injured party like appellant may assert NRS 485.3091,[1] Nevada's absolute-liability statute, in order to sue the tortfeasor's insurer after obtaining a judgment against the tortfeasor, and whether an injured party can pursue a bad faith claim against the insurer. We also consider whether the insurer's actions established a valid promissory estoppel claim.

We conclude that an insurer cannot circumvent the state's absolute-liability statute. Accordingly, a statutory third-party claimant can sue the insurer to enforce compliance with NRS 485.3091, and we thus conclude that the district court erred in denying appellant relief under NRS 485.3091. However, we conclude nothing in the statute grants a third-party claimant an independent cause of action for bad faith against an insurer. We further conclude that the district court did not err in denying relief on appellant's promissory estoppel claim. Thus, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In April 2006, Jario Perez-Castellano was driving a vehicle owned by Adiel Mollinedo-Cruz and insured by Nevada Direct Insurance Company (NDIC) when he crashed into appellant Saundra Torres's car, injuring Saundra. Neither Mollinedo-Cruz nor Perez-Castellano contacted NDIC. Torres filed a complaint against Mollinedo-Cruz and Perez-Castellano for negligence, negligent entrustment, and punitive damages stemming from the car accident. Mollinedo-Cruz and Perez-Castellano answered the complaint, denying all of the allegations and raising several affirmative defenses. Mollinedo-Cruz and Perez-Castellano then stopped participating in the action.

NDIC subsequently filed a complaint for declaratory relief against Mollinedo-Cruz, Perez-Castellano, and Torres. NDIC argued that because Mollinedo-Cruz violated the policy in failing to cooperate with the post-accident investigation, NDIC was not responsible for his defense or indemnification in Torres's suit against Mollinedo-Cruz.

Page 1206

NDIC made an offer of judgment for $1 more than Mollinedo-Cruz's policy limit to Torres, but she declined the offer. The district court entered default judgments against Mollinedo-Cruz and Perez-Castellano in the declaratory relief case and concluded that NDIC was not obligated to defend or indemnify either of them for the accident with Torres. But the district court concluded that the default judgments " [did] not apply to and are not binding" on Torres and she could " pursue any and all claims/defenses available to her under" Mollinedo-Cruz's insurance policy, Torres subsequently acquired a default judgment against Mollinedo-Cruz and Perez-Castellano in her original liability action.

Torres then filed a new complaint against NDIC. Torres claimed that NDIC breached the insurance policy when it failed to pay her claim, she was entitled to damages based on a theory of promissory estoppel, and NDIC breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. NDIC filed a motion to dismiss Torres's promissory estoppel and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claims for failure to state a claim. The district court denied NDIC's motion on Torres's promissory estoppel claim but granted the motion on Torres's claim that NDIC breached the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing.

At the conclusion of a two-day bench trial, the district court entered judgment in favor of NDIC. The district court concluded that Torres was neither a named contracting party nor an intended third-party beneficiary of the insurance contract. The court further concluded that Torres was not a judgment creditor of NDIC because NDIC obtained its default judgment--" that it had no duty to defend or indemnify" anyone for the accident with Torres--before Torres obtained her default judgment against Mollinedo-Cruz and Perez-Castellano.[2] The court also concluded that NDIC fulfilled any obligations under the insurance contract because NDIC made an offer of judgment for the policy limit to Torres, which she rejected.

In regard to Torres's promissory estoppel argument, the district court determined that letters sent from NDIC to Torres indicating that it was reviewing her medical records and it would " review the demand and contact [Torres's counsel] with an offer" did not amount to a promise to pay any amount, and that none of the correspondence between NDIC and Torres precluded Torres from taking action. Torres now appeals.

DISCUSSION

In resolving this appeal, we must first determine whether Torres has a statutory claim against NDIC under the so-called absolute-liability statute, NRS 485.3091. We then consider whether sufficient evidence supports the district court's promissory estoppel conclusions and whether the district court erred in ...


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