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Northfield Insurance Co. v. Browning Timber & Saw Mill, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Middle Division

January 8, 2019

BROWNING TIMBER & SAW MILL, LLC, et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff Northfield Insurance Company (“Northfield”) asks the court to declare that under the terms of a commercial general liability insurance policy issued to Defendant Browning Timber & Saw Mill, LLC (“Browning Timber”), Northfield does not have a duty to defend or indemnify Browning Timber or Defendants Colin Browning and Jonathan “Bo” Darnell in an underlying state court action filed by Defendant Brad Wilson. Currently before the court is Northfield's motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 56). For the reasons explained below, the court GRANTS the motion.


         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact.” FindWhat Inv'r Grp. v., 658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986)). A “material fact” is one that “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986).


         In the light most favorable to the Defendants, the facts are set forth below.

         A. Underlying Incident and Complaint

         In the spring of 2016, Mr. Browning hired Mr. Wilson and his company, Pier One Pile Driving, LLC, to build a pier on Mr. Browning's property. (Doc. 57-2 at 8, 18; Doc. 57-3 at 21-22). While Mr. Wilson was building the pier, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Browning discussed Mr. Browning's sawmill business, Browning T imber. (Doc. 57-2 at 19). Mr. Wilson mentioned that he and his wife were clearing some land they owned in order to build a house, and he asked Mr. Browning if he would be interested in cutting and hauling off trees from Mr. Wilson's property. (Doc. 57-2 at 19; Doc. 57-3 at 22, 25). In exchange for his work, Mr. Wilson agreed that Mr. Browning could take any pine trees from the Wilson property that Mr. Browning wanted for his sawmill business. (Doc. 57-2 at 21; Doc. 57-3 at 22, 25, 58).

         Mr. Wilson and Mr. Browning disagree about the scope of the work that Mr. Browning was to perform. Mr. Wilson intended that Mr. Browning would take the pine trees off the property and prune the oak trees on the property. (Doc. 57-2 at 65). Mr. Browning disputes that he was going to prune or trim any trees. (Doc. 57-3 at 21, 31; Doc. 57-4 at 12). Mr. Browning understood that Mr. Wilson would let him cut down and take any pine tree logs that interested him. (Doc. 57-3 at 22, 31; Doc. 57-4 at 12).

         Mr. Browning went to Mr. Wilson's property on April 3, 2016. (Doc. 57-4 at 12). On the way there, Mr. Browning ran into a friend, Mr. Darnell, who asked if he could accompany Mr. Browning and help him remove the trees and load the lo gs . (Doc. 57-3 at 48; Doc. 57-4 at 14; Doc. 57-5 at 13-14). Mr. Darnell was not an employee of Mr. Browning or Browning Timber. (Doc. 57-3 at 48-50; Doc. 57-5 at 14).

         Mr. Browning testified that upon arriving at Mr. Wilson's property, he discovered that there were only five or six trees that he could use for his sawmill business, and those trees were surrounded by trees that Mr. Wilson had already pushed down with a bulldozer. (Doc. 57-3 at 58-59; Doc. 57-4 at 12-13; Doc. 57- 5 at 16-17 Doc. 57-6 at 11). To reach the trees that Mr. Browning wanted for his sawmill business, Mr. Darnell testified that he needed to cut down a standing oak tree. (Doc. 57-5 at 22).

         Mr. Darnell used a chainsaw to “notch” the tree at the base of the trunk so that he could control the direction in which it would fall. (Doc. 57-5, pp. 23-27; Doc. 57-6 at 7-8). As Mr. Darnell was cutting the trunk of the tree, the chainsaw became stuck. (Doc. 57-5 at 20-21, 27-28; Doc. 57-6 at 7). Mr. Darnell planned to use Mr. Browning's skid steer to push the tree over and free the chainsaw, but the skid steer had mechanical problems and would not crank. (Doc. 57-3 at 70-73; Doc. 57-4 at 13; Doc. 57-5 at 29-30).

         Mr. Browning and Mr. Darnell left Mr. Wilson's property so that Mr. Browning could pick up a mechanic to repair the skid steer. (Doc. 57-3 at 72-73; Doc. 57-4 at 14; Doc. 57-5 at 32; Doc. 57-6 at 8). Mr. Browning dropped off Mr. Darnell at his car and went to meet the mechanic at Browning T imber's business location. (Doc. 57-3 at 74). Mr. Darnell then returned to Mr. Wilson's property to try to get the chainsaw out of the tree. (Doc. 57-5 at 33). When Mr. Darnell arrived, he learned that the tree had fallen on Mr. Wilson. (Doc. 57-5 at 33). Mr. Darnell called Mr. Browning to tell him what happened. (Doc. 57-4 at 14; Doc. 57-5 at 37; Doc. 57-6 at 8).

         Mr. Browning, as the sole member of Browning Timber, did not report the incident to Northfield or report a claim to Northfield at that time. (Doc. 57-4, p. 17; see Doc. 57-4 at 20, 59). Mr. Darnell ...

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