Don't Miss
Home / Fulltext Opinions / Supreme Court of Virginia / USAA CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL. v. RANDOLPH, ET AL.

USAA CASUALTY INSURANCE COMPANY, ET AL. v. RANDOLPH, ET AL.


USAA CASUALTY INSURANCE
COMPANY, ET AL. v. RANDOLPH, ET AL.


February 27, 1998
Record No. 971083

USAA CASUALTY INSURANCE
COMPANY, ET AL.

v.

TRACY LEE RANDOLPH, ET AL.

OPINION BY JUSTICE BARBARA MILANO KEENAN
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF LOUDOUN COUNTY

Carleton Penn, Judge Designate
Present: All the Justices


In this appeal, we consider a procedural challenge to the use
of a declaratory judgment proceeding for resolving the issue
whether an employee’s injury arose out of and in the course of
his employment.

In October 1995, Kevin Martin was working as a truck driver
for Southern States Cooperative, Inc., t/a Southern States
Leesburg Petroleum Services (Southern States). Martin’s job
required him to be "on call" to respond to customer
requests for service during the weekend beginning Friday, October
13, 1995. Pursuant to company policy, Martin planned to use a
company-owned truck for the period he was "on call."

At the end of his regular work shift on October 13, Martin
began to transfer his personal belongings from his car, which was
in Southern States’ employee parking lot, to the company-owned
truck. During this process, Martin noticed that his hunting rifle
was in the trunk of his car and that the rifle case was open.
When Martin attempted to close the rifle case, the rifle
discharged a bullet which traveled through the wall of the trunk
and struck Tracy Lee Randolph, another Southern States employee,
in the left leg. There is no allegation that this shooting was
intentional.

At the time of the shooting, Martin’s car was insured by a
motor vehicle liability insurance policy issued by USAA Casualty
Insurance Company (USAA), which provided coverage for injuries
caused by Martin’s negligent or reckless use of the car. Martin’s
homeowner’s liability insurance policy, also issued by USAA,
provided coverage for injuries resulting from Martin’s negligent
or reckless acts. USAA denied liability under each policy for
Randolph’s injury on the ground that Randolph was injured on
Southern States’ property while Martin was in the course of his
employment. Southern States’ workers’ compensation carrier,
Southern States Underwriters, Inc., t/a Southern States Insurance
Exchange (Underwriters), also denied liability for Randolph’s
injury, stating that the injury did not arise out of or in the
course of Randolph’s employment.

Randolph filed a bill of complaint for declaratory judgment in
the trial court against several defendants, including USAA,
Southern States, Underwriters, and Kevin Martin. The bill of
complaint requested a declaration that USAA was liable for
Randolph’s injury under either or both of the insurance policies
issued by USAA.

At a bench trial, Randolph’s counsel informed the chancellor
that the sole issue he was asking the chancellor to decide was
"whether the Workers’ Compensation bar applies."
Randolph’s counsel further stated that he "was not going to
get into which one of the various USAA policies might
apply." USAA and Martin (collectively, USAA) objected to
Randolph’s use of a declaratory judgment proceeding to resolve
the issue concerning the workers’ compensation bar.

After hearing the evidence, the chancellor ruled that the
request for declaratory relief was appropriate because the suit
involved an "antagonistic assertion and denial of
right." The chancellor then held that the injury did not
arise out of Randolph’s employment and, thus, that the Virginia
Workers’ Compensation Act, Code ?? 65.2-100 through -1310, did
not bar Randolph from filing a tort action.

On appeal, USAA contends that the chancellor erred in entering
a declaratory judgment on the issue whether Randolph’s injuries
arose out of and in the course of his employment. USAA argues
that declaratory judgment did not lie in this case because the
suit raised an issue to be decided in a future tort action and
did not involve a determination of Randolph’s rights under a
written instrument.

Southern States and Randolph (collectively, Randolph) contend
that the trial court did not err in entering a declaratory
judgment because the bill of complaint requested a determination
whether Randolph had a right to file a workers’ compensation
claim or a right to institute a personal injury action. Randolph
also asserts that the declaratory judgment suit was an
appropriate and efficient mechanism for joining all parties in
interest for the conclusive determination of these rights. We
disagree with Randolph.

Under the Declaratory Judgment Act, Code ?? 8.01-184 through
-191, circuit courts have the authority to make "binding
adjudications of right" in cases of "actual
controversy" when there is "antagonistic assertion and
denial of right." Code ? 8.01-184; Blue Cross & Blue
Shield v. St. Mary’s Hosp.
, 245 Va. 24, 35, 426 S.E.2d 117,
123 (1993); Erie Ins. Group v. Hughes, 240 Va. 165, 170,
393 S.E.2d 210, 212 (1990); Reisen v. Aetna Life & Cas.
Co.
, 225 Va. 327, 331, 302 S.E.2d 529, 531 (1983). The
purpose of this enactment is to provide relief from the
uncertainty arising out of controversies over legal rights. Code
? 8.01-191; Erie, 240 Va. at 170, 393 S.E.2d at 212; Reisen,
225 Va. at 331, 302 S.E.2d at 531.

The Declaratory Judgment Act does not give trial courts the
authority to render advisory opinions, to decide moot questions,
or to answer inquiries that are merely speculative. St. Mary’s,
245 Va. at 35, 426 S.E.2d at 123; Hughes, 240 Va. at 170,
393 S.E.2d at 212; Reisen, 225 Va. at 331, 302 S.E.2d at
531. The Act also is not to be used as an instrument of
procedural fencing, either to secure delay or to choose a forum. Liberty
Mut. Ins. Co. v. Bishop
, 211 Va. 414, 419, 177 S.E.2d 519,
522 (1970); Williams v. Southern Bank, 203 Va. 657, 662,
125 S.E.2d 803, 807 (1962).

The authority to enter a declaratory judgment is discretionary
and must be exercised with great care and caution. Bishop,
211 Va. at 421, 177 S.E.2d at 524. As a rule, this authority will
not be exercised when some other mode of proceeding is provided. Id.

The fact that multiple actions may be avoided if a declaratory
judgment is entered is not always a ground for the trial court to
exercise its jurisdiction. There must also be some real necessity
for the exercise of jurisdiction on this basis. Id. at
419, 177 S.E.2d at 522-23; Williams, 203 Va. at 663, 125
S.E.2d at 807. Further, when a declaratory judgment regarding a
disputed fact would be determinative of issues, rather than a
construction of definite stated rights, status, or other
relations, commonly expressed in written instruments, the case is
not appropriate for declaratory judgment. Bishop, 211 Va.
at 420, 177 S.E.2d at 523; Williams, 203 Va. at 663, 125
S.E.2d at 807.

Our decisions in Bishop and Williams illustrate
some of these basic principles. In Bishop, two insurers
which had defended and settled a wrongful death action requested
entry of a declaratory judgment against Liberty Mutual Insurance
Company (Liberty Mutual). The two insurers effectively contended
that Liberty Mutual was liable to them because they defended,
settled, and paid under their policies a claim that should have
been defended, settled, and paid by Liberty Mutual. The trial
court entered a declaratory judgment decreeing recovery in favor
of the two insurers.

On appeal, Liberty Mutual maintained that the disputed claim
was not appropriate for resolution by means of declaratory
judgment. We agreed because, when the petition for declaratory
judgment was filed, the various claims and rights asserted had
accrued and matured, and the wrongs alleged had been suffered.
211 Va. at 421, 177 S.E.2d at 524. Thus, no rights between the
parties remained unsettled and other modes of proceeding were
available for resolution of the dispute. See id.

In Williams, a former customer of a bank threatened to
file eleven actions for malicious prosecution against the bank,
based on information the bank gave to a prosecutor that led to
the indictment of the customer on eleven charges of larceny. When
the customer was acquitted on two of the larceny charges, the
remaining indictments were terminated by nolle prosequi
on motion by the prosecutor. The bank filed a petition for
declaratory judgment requesting a determination whether the bank
could be held liable in a civil suit for the alleged malicious
prosecution. The trial court entered a declaratory judgment
decreeing that the bank had made a full disclosure of all
material facts to the prosecutor, and the court permanently
enjoined the customer from instituting any malicious prosecution
actions based on the bank’s conduct. 203 Va. at 658-59, 125
S.E.2d at 804-05.

We reversed the trial court’s decree, holding that declaratory
judgment did not lie because the only controversy in the suit
involved a disputed issue, namely, whether the bank made a full
disclosure of the facts to the prosecutor. 203 Va. at 663, 125
S.E.2d at 807. The determination of that issue, rather than an
adjudication of any rights of the parties, was the true object of
the proceeding. Id. We also noted that the trial court’s
decree improperly allowed the bank to choose its own forum in
equity. Id. at 663, 125 S.E.2d at 808.

The present case suffers from many of the same defects that
required reversal of the decrees in Bishop and Williams.
Like Bishop, the present case involves claims and rights
that had accrued and matured when the bill of complaint was
filed. Thus, declaratory judgment did not lie because other
remedies were available to Randolph, namely, a claim for workers’
compensation benefits or an action at law. See Bishop,
211 Va. at 421, 177 S.E.2d at 524.

Like Williams, the present case is inappropriate for
declaratory judgment because the case does not involve a
determination of rights, but only involves a disputed issue to be
determined in future litigation between the parties, namely,
whether Randolph’s injuries arose out of and in the course of his
employment. The chancellor’s entry of a declaratory judgment also
improperly allowed Randolph to choose a forum for the
determination of this issue. See Williams, 203 Va.
at 663, 125 S.E.2d at 808.

We find no merit in Randolph’s contention that the present
case is similar to our decision in Reisen. There, we were
presented with an actual controversy requiring the interpretation
of rights under an insurance policy. The controversy involved the
insurer’s duty to defend a pending tort action. We held that the
determination of this coverage question was appropriate for
declaratory judgment because the determination guided the parties
in their future conduct in relation to each other, and saved them
from jeopardizing their interests by taking undirected action
incident to their rights. 225 Va. at 335, 302 S.E.2d at 533. The
present case is dissimilar to Reisen because Randolph did
not seek any adjudication of rights but only requested a
determination of the issue whether his injuries arose out of and
in the course of his employment.[1]

For these reasons, we will reverse the trial court’s decree
and dismiss the bill of complaint for declaratory judgment.

Reversed and dismissed.

 

 

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1]
Based on our decision, we do not reach USAA’s remaining
assignment of error challenging the merits of the chancellor’s
decision.

Scroll To Top