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Great American Alliance Insurance Co. v. Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 29, 2019

Great American Alliance Insurance Company Plaintiff- Appellant
Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Inc.; Jeremy Richards; Karlee Richards Defendants - Appellees

          Submitted: February 12, 2019

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Jefferson City

          Before SMITH, Chief Judge, BENTON and STRAS, Circuit Judges.


         While attending Bible camp, a child fell from a 50-foot-high zipline. The parties dispute who potentially bears financial responsibility for her injuries. On one side is the conference center that operated the zipline. On the other is the Bible camp's insurer. We conclude that, under the plain language of the insurance policy, the insurer is not responsible for the conference center's alleged negligence.


         Windermere Baptist Conference Center is located on the shores of Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks. For many years, Student Life, an affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention, has used Windermere to host its camps. According to their contract, Student Life rents group lodging and conference rooms from Windermere. In return, campers have access to Windermere's common spaces and some of its recreational areas, including the swimming pool, miniature-golf course, and hiking trails. But a few recreational areas-including "the Edge," Windermere's ropes and zipline course-are not freely available to campers. Rather, to access the Edge, campers must make separate arrangements and pay an additional fee.

         Karlee Richards and her youth group attended a Student Life Bible camp. During their free time one afternoon, they arranged to use the Edge. In addition to scheduling a specific time with Windermere and paying the entrance fee, the campers had to submit a permission and release form signed by a parent. Midway through the course, a Windermere employee forgot to reconnect Karlee's harness to the zipline's tether, and she fell 50 feet to the ground.

         This tragic accident led to extensive litigation between Windermere and the Richards family. Eventually, Windermere asked Student Life's insurer, Great American Alliance Insurance Company, to indemnify it as an additional insured under Student Life's general-liability insurance policy. Great American refused on the ground that the accident did not "ar[ise] out of the . . . use of . . . premises leased" to Student Life.

         Great American then filed a separate declaratory-judgment action in federal district court against, as relevant here, Windermere, Karlee, and Karlee's father. After both sides moved for summary judgment, the court ruled that Windermere was covered by Student Life's policy. Great American appeals this decision, which we review de novo. See United Fire & Cas. Co. v. Titan Contractors Serv., Inc., 751 F.3d 880, 883 (8th Cir. 2014).


         Student Life's insurance policy covered Windermere as an additional insured only if its "liability ar[ose] out of the ownership, maintenance[, ] or use of that portion of the premises leased to [Student Life]." The crucial question, then, is whether Karlee's zipline accident "ar[ose] out of" the use of premises that Windermere "leased to" Student Life. Neither phrase is defined in the policy, so we give each the "ordinary meaning . . . that the average layperson would reasonably understand." Martin v. U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co., 996 S.W.2d 506, 508 (Mo. banc 1999) (citation omitted).

         The common understanding of a "lease" is a "contract by which one conveys" property for a certain period of time "for a specified rent or compensation." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1286 (2002). Combining this definition with the specific terms of the policy, the only "premises" Windermere "conveyed" to Student Life were the conference rooms and the lodging specified in the contract. Their contract did not mention any other areas, much less give Student Life a "right [to] exclusive possession" of them, which is "the hallmark of a lease." Kan. City Area Transp. Auth. v. Ashley, 485 S.W.2d 641, 645 (Mo.Ct.App. 1972); see also Kimack v. Adams, 930 S.W.2d 505, 507 (Mo.Ct.App. 1996) (defining a lease as a "contract . . . for exclusive possession of [property] for a determinate period" (emphasis added) (citation omitted)).

         The Edge was no exception. It was off-limits to any campers who did not make special arrangements in advance, including Karlee and her youth group. To be sure, campers could get right up to the security fence surrounding the Edge. But the area itself was at all times under the control of Windermere's employees. Student Life, in other words, ...

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