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Maryland County v. Distel

Court of Appeals of Maryland

December 19, 2013

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, MARYLAND
v.
JOHN DISTEL

Circuit Court for Montgomery County Civil Case No. 8386D.

Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Watts, JJ.

OPINION

Watts, J.

This case arises from a dispute as to whether Montgomery County, Maryland ("the County"), Petitioner, a self-insured entity, may recover damages from Montgomery County Police Officer John Distel, ("Respondent"), for the costs of repairing a County-owned police patrol vehicle, which was damaged in a single-car collision while Respondent operated the vehicle under the influence of alcohol. Specifically, we must determine whether Maryland's compulsory motor vehicle insurance scheme permits a self-insurer, such as the County, to disclaim or exclude insurance coverage, in a self-insurance guarantee, where an individual causes a collision while driving under the influence of alcohol. For the below reasons, we answer the question in the negative and, accordingly, affirm the judgment of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County.[1]

BACKGROUND

The County's Self-Insurance Policy and Guarantee

The County is a self-insured entity approved by the Motor Vehicle Administration ("the MVA"). For the period from February 1, 2008, to February 1, 2009, the County agreed to provide motor vehicle liability insurance for County-owned vehicles "commensurate with the provisions as set forth in Section 17-103, Transportation Article, Annotated Code of Maryland and COMAR 11.18.02." In an application for self-insurance, dated January 8, 2008, the County stated that it would provide coverage for the minimum mandatory limits for: (1) bodily injury liability; (2) uninsured motorist claims; and (3) property damage liability. The County submitted to the MVA a signed Guarantee ("the Guarantee"), which provided, in relevant part:

This guarantee is limited to payment of valid claims arising from motor vehicle accidents resulting from use or operation of covered vehicles by persons authorized to use such vehicles and occurring within the scope of such authorization. Where the use of a County vehicle is prohibited by any applicable vehicle-use policy, coverage is excluded under this Guarantee for damage of any kind.

The County's self-insurance policy and Guarantee were approved by the MVA and were in effect at the time of the collision at issue.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement

In 2008, at the time of the collision at issue, there was a Collective Bargaining Agreement ("the CBA") in effect between the County and the Fraternal Order of Police, Montgomery County Lodge 35, Inc. ("the FOP").[2] Article 35 of the CBA, entitled "Vehicles, " set forth the policies and regulations concerning personal patrol vehicles ("PPVs"). Relevant provisions of Article 35 include the following:

Section D. General. Eligible officers participating in the program will be issued a police vehicle for on-duty and off-duty use subject to the regulations in this Article. All take home vehicles assigned to officers will be defined as personal patrol vehicles (PPVs). This policy pertains to all officers assigned PPVs[.]
Section G. Program Regulations. The following regulations apply to all participating officers as well as those officers using PPVs on a temporary basis:
2. PPVs will not be operated within four (4) hours after the officer has ingested any amount of alcohol. PPVs will not be operated after the officer has ingested any drug that impairs his ability to operate the vehicle. No alcoholic beverages will be carried in the PPV except when they are seized as evidence or contraband.
7. The PPV will not be used to carry excessively large or heavy loads or objects which protrude from the trunk or windows, except when required in the performance of official duties.

Section H. PPV Operating Procedures

5. All officers will use seat belts when operating or riding in County motor vehicles, except when an officer's duties necessitate frequent exiting from the vehicle (i.e., checking stores within the same shopping complex). . . .

The Instant Case

On May 9, 2008, at approximately 1:25 a.m., Respondent was operating a PPV, while off-duty, and was involved in a single-vehicle collision, which damaged the PPV and resulted in financial loss to the County. At the time of the collision, Respondent was under the influence of alcohol.[3] Respondent was arrested, charged with multiple alcohol-related crimes, and pled guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. Respondent received eighteen months of probation before judgment. The Montgomery County Police Department issued against Respondent administrative charges, which resulted in department-imposed penalties, including an eighty-hour suspension without pay[4] and the requirement that Respondent successfully complete a stress and alcohol intervention program. As a result of the collision, the PPV was damaged and the County had to pay a total of $8, 797.05, including $8, 522.05 in repairs and $275 for towing.

Shortly after the collision, through his union representative, Respondent filed a grievance against the County, seeking a determination that the CBA precluded the County from obtaining damages against him for the cost of repairs to the PPV. The grievance went to arbitration. The arbitrator decided that he could not determine whether the County was entitled to recover damages against Respondent, as the matter needed to be resolved through a civil action rather than an administrative action. The parties agreed that the arbitrator would retain jurisdiction, but that the County could seek a civil judgment against Respondent, and if the County succeeded, the FOP could seek to reopen arbitration to determine whether the CBA permitted the civil judgment.

On August 3, 2010, in the District Court of Maryland sitting in Montgomery County ("the district court"), the County filed a complaint against Respondent seeking to recover the cost of repairs to the PPV, and on October 14, 2010, the County filed an amended complaint in the district court, seeking the same relief.

On October 19, 2011, the district court conducted a one-day trial.[5] On November 4, 2011, the district court ruled that the County, as a self-insurer, was entitled to relief and could recover damages against Respondent based on the "exclusion/restriction" of coverage in the Guarantee. The district court granted judgment in favor of the County in the amount of $8, 797.05, plus court costs in the amount of $78.

Respondent noted an appeal to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County ("the circuit court"). Following a hearing, the circuit court reversed the judgment of the district court and entered judgment in favor of Respondent, ...


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