No Coverage for Suit Alleging Restaurant Had Refused to Allow Customer to Bring in His Service Dog

June 21, 2017 | Robert Tugander | Insurance Coverage

A federal district court in West Virginia has ruled that an insurance policy did not cover claims that a restaurant had refused to allow a customer to bring his service dog into the restaurant.

The Case

Scott Ullom sued Grand China Buffet & Grill, Inc., and Qi Feng Chen in his capacity as “Director, Incorporator, and President” of Grand China, alleging that he had not been allowed to bring his service dog into the restaurant in violation of the West Virginia Human Rights Act and other laws.

After Grand China’s commercial general liability insurance carrier determined that Ullom’s claims were not covered by Grand China’s policy, Grand China and Chen sued. The insurer moved for summary judgment.

The District Court’s Decision

The district court granted the insurer’s motion.

In its decision, the district court pointed out that the policy defined “bodily injury” as “bodily injury, sickness or disease.” It then ruled that Ullom’s underlying claims for statutory violations, “emotional distress, embarrassment, [and] humiliation,” without more, did not fall within this definition.

The district court pointed out that Ullom had not alleged any “physical manifestation” of these “purely mental or emotional harm[s].” Accordingly, it ruled, coverage for “bodily injury” had not been triggered.

The district court also ruled that Ullom’s claims had not triggered “wrongful eviction” coverage under the policy’s “personal and advertising injury” liability coverage provisions.

The district court explained that the policy provided coverage only for “wrongful eviction from . . . a room, dwelling or premises that a person occupies.” Ullom had not alleged any possessory interest in Grand China that had given him a right to occupy the restaurant, the district court observed. Rather, it continued, he had alleged only that Grand China had wrongfully denied him the right to be served with certain accommodations required by West Virginia law, namely the presence of his service dog.

Therefore, the district court concluded, Ullom’s allegation was not reasonably susceptible to an interpretation that it was covered by the policy’s provision for “wrongful eviction,” and the district court granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment on that claim.

The case is Grand China Buffett & Grill, Inc. v. State Auto Property & Cas. Co., No. 1:16CV159 (N.D.W. Va. May 16, 2017).

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