STATE OF RHODE ISLAND AND PROVIDENCE PLANTATIONS
(FILED – DECEMBER 8, 2003)
MARIA MEDEIROS, Executrix of the
ESTATE OF EDWARD COUTO
AETNA CASUALTY & SURETY COMPANY :
OF AMERICA, Alias John Doe I and
TRAVELERS CASUALTY AND SURETY
COMPANY OF AMERICA
C.A. NO.: 01-4842
INDEGLIA, J. Before this Court is the motion of Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of
America, which issued an Aetna Casualty & Surety Company of American policy (hereinafter
“Defendant”), for summary judgment pursuant to Super. R. Civ. P. 56. The instant case presents
this Court with the same issue the Supreme Court of Rhode Island first addressed in Martinelli v.
Travelers Insurance Companies, 687 A.2d 443 (R.I. 1996). This issue is “whether a principal
shareholder or employee of a corporation may be considered a named insured for purposes of
uninsured-motorist benefits under a policy that lists the corporation as the named insured.” Id. at
444. The Court heard oral arguments on the motion on November 25, 2003.
FACTS AND TRAVEL
On May 8, 1997, Edward Couto (“Couto”) and Richard Rampino (“Rampino”) were
tragically killed in a car accident while returning from a Red Sox baseball game in Boston,
Massachusetts. The two were traveling in a 1994 Isuzu Trooper, owned by Rampino, when they
were struck from behind by a drunk and uninsured motorist. At the time of their deaths, Couto
and Rampino each owned twenty-five percent of Tara Food Services, Inc., d/b/a West Valley Inn
and Damien Corporation, d/b/a Porino’s Gourmet Foods. The two closely-held corporations
maintained a number of insurance policies. The policy at issue in this case pertains to uninsured
motorist coverage (“UM”) issued by Defendant to Damien Corporation, d/b/a Porino’s Gourmet
Foods (“Porino’s”). Maria Medeiros, Executrix of the estate of Edward Couto (“Plaintiff”),
brought this action against Defendant, seeking UM benefits under the Porino’s policy.1
The pertinent part of the policy, as specified on the “Rhode Island Uninsured Motorist
Coverage” page, provides benefits for “sums the ‘insured’ is legally entitled to recover as
compensatory damages from the owner or driver of an ‘uninsured motor vehicle’ because of. . .
‘[b]odily injury’ sustained by an ‘insured’ and caused by an ‘accident’. . . .” The “Who is an
Insured” section indicates that it provides UM benefits to
2. If you are an individual ‘family member.’
3. Anyone else ‘occupying’ a covered ‘auto’ or a temporary substitute
for a covered ‘auto’….
4. Anyone for damages he or she is entitled to recover because of
‘bodily injury’ sustained by another insured.’”
“You” refers to the named insured, or Class I insured, which is identified on the declarations
page as Porino’s.2
Another at-issue provision on the “Rhode Island Uninsured Motorist Coverage” page is
the exclusion commonly referred to as the “other owned auto” exclusion or the “owned but not
insured” exclusion. See Dellagrotta v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 639 A.2d 980, 980-81 (R.I. 1994).
As more fully discussed below, the Plaintiff previously brought an action for benefits under a similar policy issued
by Anthem Casualty Insurance Group and Shelby Insurance Company. See Medeiros v. Anthem Casualty Insurance
Group, 796 A.2d 1078 (R.I. 2002). Additionally, a separate Superior Court action is currently pending concerning
the other decedent. Rampino v. Insura Property and Casualty Insurance Company, No. PC 00-2305.
A Class I insured is the named insured. A Class II insured is the occupant of an insured vehicle. Martinelli v.
Travelers Insurance Companies, 687 A.2d at 445 n.1 (citing Finch v. Centennial Insurance Co., 650 A.2d 495, 497
(R.I. 1994)). Class I insureds receive broad protection while Class II insureds are only protected while occupying an
insured vehicle with UM coverage. Finch v. Centennial Insurance Co., 650 A.2d 495 at 498 (R.I. 1994).
This section provides that “this insurance does not apply to any of the following. . . 4. ‘[b]odily
injury’ sustained by you or any ‘family member’ while ‘occupying’ or struck by any vehicle
owned by you or any ‘family member’ that is not a covered ‘auto.’”
Previously, Plaintiff brought an action under a similar policy issued by Anthem Casualty
Insurance Group and Shelby Insurance Company (“Anthem”). Anthem moved for summary
judgment, and the Superior Court justice granted the request.
The Supreme Court found
summary judgment appropriate and affirmed the ruling in Medeiros v. Anthem Casualty
Insurance Group, 796 A.2d 1078 (R.I. 2002) (“Medeiros I”). Citing its Martinelli ruling, the
Court found the policy unambiguous because the declarations page of the policy clearly
indicated that the corporation was the insured party. Medeiros I, 796 A.2d at 1080. The Court
therefore concluded that Couto was not a Class I insured and not entitled to uninsured motorist
While the Medeiros I appeal was pending, Plaintiff sought to vacate summary judgment
based on newly discovered evidence. The Superior Court denied the motion to vacate, and
Plaintiff appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court, which affirmed summary judgment in
Medeiros v. Anthem Casualty Insurance Group, 822 A.2d 175 (R.I. 2003) (“Medeiros II”).
Here, Plaintiff argued that the trial justice would not have granted summary judgment if certain
newly discovered evidence had been available at the time.3 Medeiros II, 822 A.2d at 177. In
In arguing the motion to vacate in Medeiros II, the Plaintiff indicated that
“the newly discovered evidence originated from a separate Superior Court action concerning the
same facts, Rampino v. Insura Property and Casualty Insurance Company, No. PC 00-2305. This
alleged new evidence derived from a sworn affidavit that Alice Rampino (Mrs. Rampino), the wife
of the other deceased accident victim, Richard Rampino, submitted in that case. There, Mrs.
Rampino averred that her late husband had told her that the purpose of the decedents' trip to
Boston was related to the business of the corporations. The plaintiff asserted that, upon obtaining
response, Anthem argued that the Plaintiff must prove both (1) the existence of newly discovered
evidence, and (2) that the evidence could not have been discovered by exercising due diligence.
Id. Anthem contended that the evidence could have been discovered with ordinary diligence, if
Plaintiff had deposed Mrs. Rampino. Id. The Superior Court agreed with the Defendant, finding
that the Plaintiff failed to demonstrate that the evidence could not have been discovered in a
timely manner by exercising due diligence. The trial justice indicated that Plaintiff simply
needed to depose Mrs. Rampino. Id. The Rhode Island Supreme Court affirmed the trial
justice’s refusal to vacate summary judgment, holding that Plaintiff’s “failure to exercise due
diligence in discovering the existence of certain newly discovered but previously available
evidence doomed the plaintiff’s motion to vacate the summary judgment. . . .” Medeiros II, 822
A.2d at 176.
In the instant case, Medeiros v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Company of America, et al.,
No. PC01-4842 (“Medeiros III”), Defendant seeks summary judgment, contending that the Class
I named insured is Porino’s, not Couto.
Defendant argues that the Court need not reach
Plaintiff’s allegation that a factual dispute exists as to whether the Red Sox trip was business
related, which may implicate the Martinelli exception.4 Defendant relies on Martinelli and
Medeiros I to conclude there is no ambiguity and no factual basis to establish the businessrelated exception. In the alternative, the Defendant briefly argues that the “other owned auto”
exception would apply and exclude coverage to Couto. Defendant reasons that if Couto is a
this affidavit and a transcript of Mrs. Rampino's deposition, also taken in the other case, she
discovered that on the date of the accident, Mrs. Rampino spoke with her husband on his cell
phone while the decedents were traveling to Boston. According to plaintiff, Mrs. Rampino
testified that her husband told her that he and Couto were going to a Red Sox game to discuss the
business of Tara Food Services, Inc. d/b/a West Valley Inn with other business associates.”
Medeiros II, 822 A.2d at 177.
See infra (discussing the Martinelli exception).
“you,” then he is subject to the exclusion that applies when a policyholder owns an auto but does
not cover it under the policy.5
Plaintiff contends that the Martinelli exception applies, thereby allowing Couto to be
considered a named insured because he was engaged in a business-related activity. Plaintiff cites
worker’s compensation benefits cases to show that that the fateful trip satisfies the requisite
nexus between the activity and employment. Plaintiff argues that, at the very least, it cannot be
held as a matter of law that Couto’s Red Sox trip was not business related. Plaintiff also cites
other jurisdictions’ rulings on this issue, which found similar policies ambiguous due to language
referencing the corporation’s “bodily injury” and “family.”
STANDARD OF REVIEW
“Summary judgment is a proceeding in which the proponent must demonstrate by
affidavits, depositions, pleadings and other documentary matter . . . that he or she is entitled to
judgment as a matter of law and that there are no genuine issues of material fact.” Palmisciano
v. Burrillville Racing Association, 603 A.2d 317, 320 (R.I. 1992) (citing Steinberg v. State, 427
A.2d 338 (R.I. 1981); Ludwig v. Kowal, 419 A.2d 297 (R.I. 1980)); Super. Ct. R. Civ. P. 56(c).
When the moving party sustains its burden “[t]he opposing parties will not be allowed to rely
upon mere allegations or denials in their pleadings. Rather, by affidavits or otherwise, they have
an affirmative duty to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material
fact.” Bourg v. Bristol Boat Co., 705 A.2d 969 (R.I. 1998) (citing St. Paul Fire & Marine
Insurance Co. v. Russo Brothers, Inc., 641 A.2d 1297, 1299 (R.I. 1994)).
During a summary judgment proceeding “the court does not pass upon the weight or
credibility of the evidence but must consider the affidavits and other pleadings in a light most
At the summary judgment hearing held on November 25, 2003, counsel for Defendant indicated that this argument
was “a mistake” and that the Court should disregard it. To be thorough, however, the Court will address the issue.
favorable to the party opposing the motion.” Palmisciano, 603 A.2d at 320 (citing Lennon v.
MacGregor, 423 A.2d 820 (R.I. 1980)). Thus, the only task of a trial justice in ruling on a
summary judgment motion is to determine whether there is a genuine issue concerning any
material fact. Id. (citing Rhode Island Hospital Trust National Bank v. Boiteau, 376 A.2d 323
(R.I. 1977)). Therefore, “when an examination of the pleadings, affidavits, admissions, answers
to interrogatories and other similar matters, viewed in the light most favorable to the party
opposing the motion, reveals no such issue, the suit is ripe for summary judgment.” Id. (citations
APPLICABILITY OF THE MARTINELLI EXCEPTION
Defendant argues that Couto is not covered by the insurance policy because no ambiguity
exists as “you” clearly refers to Porino’s. Whether a plaintiff is covered by an insurance policy
is a question of law for the court. Martinelli v. Travelers Insurance Companies, 687 A.2d at 445.
Absent a finding that the policy is ambiguous, courts will not depart from the literal language of
the policy. Medeiros I, 796 A.2d at 1080 (R.I. 2002) (citing Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v.
Sullivan, 633 A.2d 684, 686 (R.I. 1993)). In order to determine whether an ambiguity exists, the
insurance policy is read in its entirety, giving words their plain, ordinary, and usual meaning.
Medeiros I, 796 A.2d at 1080 (R.I. 2002) (citing Mallane v. Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co., 658
A.2d 18, 20 (R.I. 1995)). In the present case, “you” is clearly defined as referring to the named
insured, and the declarations page clearly identifies Porino’s as the named insured. Martinelli v.
Travelers Insurance Companies, 687 A.2d at 445-46 (examining similar provision).
Consequently, no ambiguity exists as to the insured party reference.
Plaintiff erroneously relies on other jurisdictions for its argument that the policy is
ambiguous due to its “bodily injury” and “family” language. Our Supreme Court specifically
rejected this argument in Martinelli.
Accordingly, Porino’s, and not Couto, was
unambiguously the named insured under the policy.
However, the Martinelli Court, left open the possibility of an exception whereby a
shareholder may be considered the named insured for UM benefits when the corporation is
named. Id. at 444, 446. The Court indicated that “[i]t is conceivable that a shareholder or an
employee who is injured while acting within the scope of his or her employment might be
considered the named insured for purposes of uninsured-motorist coverage.” While the Court
did not specifically outline the criteria for such a determination, the Court indicated that a legally
insufficient situation would be a trip for “personal business,” “personal reasons,” or a “pleasure
trip, with no connection to business.” Martinelli, 687 A.2d at 446 (citing sister states finding the
In Martinelli, a determination was not necessary on whether the shareholder was
sufficiently engaged in employment-related activities for the purposes of being considered the
named insured because the shareholder “was clearly acting outside the scope of his employment
at the time he was injured . . . .” Id. (emphasis added). Likewise, the Medeiros I Court, agreeing
that shareholders acting within the scope of their employment might be considered the named
insured, affirmed summary judgment because “plaintiff presented no direct evidence that the
decedents were engaged in any business-related activity.”
Medeiros I, 796 A.2d at 1080
(emphasis added). The Supreme Court specifically indicated that it “affirmed the judgment [in
Medeiros I] because, absent any evidence that the decedents were acting in the course of their
employment on behalf of the corporations when the accident occurred, summary judgment was
proper.” Medeiros II, 822 A.2d at 176-77 (emphasis added).
Accordingly, summary judgment is not proper in the present matter. Unlike Martinelli
and Medeiros I, Plaintiff does in fact present evidence that the decedent shareholders were
engaged in a business-related activity. It cannot be held as a matter of law that the decedents’
Red Sox trip was either outside the scope of their duties as shareholders or for “personal
business,” “personal reasons,” or a “pleasure trip, with no connection to business.” Plaintiff
presents sworn affidavits, deposition testimony, and exhibits that, viewed in a light most
favorable to Plaintiff, indicate that (1) Couto and Rampino would only have gone to the game for
business purposes and not for personal reasons; (2) Porino’s does business with BJ’s in Natick,
Massachusetts; (3) while en route to the game, Couto and Rampino went to BJ’s in Natick and a
BJ’s representative may have accompanied them to the game; (4) during the trip, Couto and
Rampino discussed Porino’s expansion and renovations to the West Valley Inn building with
business associates over the telephone; and (5) gasoline for the trip was purchased on a corporate
This Court is not finding that Plaintiff presented conclusive evidence that the decedents
were acting within the scope of their duties as shareholders on Porino’s behalf. A jury may
ultimately reject this contention, but such a determination is one for the fact-finder. “The
function of the motion justice considering a proposed summary-judgment motion is not to cull
out the weak cases from the herd of lawsuits waiting to be tried. Rather, only if the case is
legally dead on arrival should the court take the drastic step of administering last rites by
granting summary judgment.” Mitchell v. Mitchell, 756 A.2d 179, 185 (R.I. 2000). Unlike
Martinelli and Medeiros I, Medeiros III is not “dead on arrival,” as Plaintiff presents evidence
that the Red Sox trip was a business-related activity, which cannot be resolved without trial.7
Assuming the decedents were engaged in business, there is conflicting evidence as to on which corporation’s
behalf Couto and Rampino were acting, Porino’s or West Valley Inn. This, of course, is a factual dispute for trial.
Additional proffered evidence links the vehicle used for the trip and Red Sox tickets to the decedents’ business;
however, the evidence presented only indicates a nexus with West Valley Inn, not Porino’s.
This Court is not finding that any and all business-related activities are sufficient for a shareholder/employee to be
considered the named insured when the corporation is named, as the Rhode Island Supreme Court has not fully
resolved the issue. A potential test may require the fact-finder to determine that the “dominant motive and purpose”
Plaintiff presents genuine issues of material fact concerning whether Couto and Rampino were
acting within the scope of their business, which may invoke the exception contemplated in
Martinelli v. Travelers Insurance Companies, 687 A.2d 443 (R.I. 1996).
Additionally, the Court rejects the argument Defendant made at the November 25, 2003
The Defendant argued that the Martinelli exception is mere dicta and, even if
applicable, it cannot be followed by this Court. Dictum is language in a decision that is not
necessary to the Court’s holding and, thus, not binding in subsequent cases. State v. Musumeci,
717 A.2d 56, 64 (R.I. 1998). While the Court is not bound by dicta, it is not prohibited from
following it. Dicta “‘may be followed if sufficiently persuasive’ but are not binding.” Central
Green Co. v. United States, 531 U.S. 425, 431, 121 S. Ct. 1005, 1009, 148 L. Ed.2d 919, 926
(2001) (quoting Humphrey’s Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602, 627, 79 L. Ed. 1611, 55 S.
Ct. 869 (1935)). It has also been held that
“[c]arefully considered statements of the [United States] Supreme
Court, even if technically dictum, must be accorded great weight
and should be treated as authoritative when, as in this instance,
badges of reliability abound. Federal appellate courts are bound by
the Supreme Court's considered dicta almost as firmly as by the
Court's outright holdings, particularly when . . . a dictum is of
recent vintage and not enfeebled by any subsequent statement.”
United States v. Santana, 6 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 1993) (internal
quotes and citations omitted).
Accordingly, even if the Martinelli exception were dicta and nonbinding, this Court is not
prohibited from following it. The Martinelli Court contemplated an exception if a certain
of the trip was business related or “related primarily” to business. Cf. Rudolph v. United States, 370 U.S. 269, 269,
276, 281 (discussing test where tax consequences depend on whether mixed business and pleasure trip is related
primarily to business). Another potential test may be the “course of employment” test utilized in worker’s
compensation cases to determine if the injury was sustained in either a work-related or recreational-related activity.
See Maggiacomo v. Rhode Island Public Transit Authority, 508 A.2d 402, 403 (R.I. 1986). Nevertheless, this issue
is outside the scope of this motion and need not be decided here; the instant case demands a factual inquiry as to the
extent of the trip’s business purpose.
situation arose. Here, such a situation has arisen, and this Court is following the guidance
provided by the foresight of Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Moreover, even if the Martinelli exception constituted dicta, that is no longer the case.
Subsequent to Martinelli, the Court directly affirmed summary judgment because the Martinelli
exception was not shown. See Medeiros I, 796 A.2d at 1080 (holding summary judgment proper
because plaintiff presented no direct evidence that decedents were engaged in business); see also
Medeiros II, 822 A.2d at 176-77 (indicating it affirmed summary judgment in Medeiros I
because no evidence was presented that decedents were acting in the course of their employment
on behalf of the corporation). Consequently, this Court finds that Plaintiffs may rely on the
exception contemplated in Martinelli v. Travelers Insurance Companies, 687 A.2d 443 (R.I.
OTHER OWNED AUTO EXCLUSION
Defendant finally argues that if Couto is a “you” and considered a named insured, then he
is subject to “the exclusion that applies when an auto ‘you’ own, but not covered under the
policy, is involved in the accident.” Defendant’s Memo at 9. This provision excludes coverage
when policyholders are injured while occupying vehicles they own but do not cover under the
policy. Defendant reasons that “[a]t the time of the accident, Rampino was occupying a vehicle
he owned, and that was not a ‘covered auto.’”
Upon giving the words their plain, ordinary, and usual meaning, this Court finds no
ambiguity and that the literal language of the provision does not exclude Couto from coverage.
See Medeiros I, 796 A.2d at 1080 (R.I. 2002) (outlining analysis for judicial construction of
The exclusion may apply if Couto owned the vehicle; however, it is
undisputed that Rampino owned the vehicle.
Therefore, the so-called “other owned auto”
exclusion does not apply.
Shareholders acting within the scope of their business on behalf of their corporation may
be eligible for uninsured-motorist coverage when the policy lists the corporation as the insured.
Plaintiff presents genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Edward Couto was engaged
in business on his corporation’s behalf when the accident occurred. Additionally, the so-called
“other owned auto” exclusion does not apply because Couto did not own the vehicle involved in
the accident. Consequently, this Court denies Defendant’s motion for summary judgment.