Fourth District Court of Appeal Holds That Prior Jury Determination is Binding in Uninsured Motorist Case

photo_5961_20080516Uninsured or underinsured motorists are not an uncommon problem in Florida. A recent study conducted by the Insurance Research Council showed that in 2012 Florida ranked second in the nation in the number of uninsured drivers, with approximately 3.2 million of the state’s drivers being uninsured at the time. In fact, Florida had only about a million fewer uninsured drivers than California, even though The Golden State boasts a population nearly twice the size of The Sunshine State. Beyond placing their personal pocketbooks in peril, uninsured and underinsured motorists often create legal hassles for those with whom they happen to collide. The sort of frustrations commonly occasioned by accidents with uninsured motorists are at the center of a recent case from the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Geico General Insurance Company v. Paton. Paton involved a dispute between an injured passenger and an insurance company that refused to pay the full policy limit of uninsured motorist benefits following an accident involving an underinsured motorist.

The plaintiff in Paton was injured in a car accident resulting from the negligence of an underinsured driver on January 1, 2008. The driver’s insurance provider, Geico, paid the injured plaintiff $10,000, which was his policy limit. The injured plaintiff’s mother, however, maintained uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage with Geico with a policy limit of $100,000. The injured plaintiff’s attorney made a formal demand to Geico to pay the full policy limit. Geico objected and offered $1,000 in exchange. Subsequent negotiations followed, but Geico never offered more than $5,000 during the course of this back and forth. Eventually, the dispute went to trial, and a jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff and fixed damages, including present and future pain and suffering, at $469,247. Geico did not move for a new trial, and judgment was entered in the plaintiff’s favor but limited to the $100,000 policy limit. The plaintiff then, with the leave of the court, amended her complaint to include a claim for bad faith under § 624.155 of the Florida Statutes. Before a second trial with respect to the added bad faith claim, the plaintiff moved in limine to exclude evidence of damages from the second trial and fix those damages at the amount that was not recovered at the first trial, $369,247. Geico then moved to exclude from evidence in the bad faith trial the damages awarded in the prior underinsured motorist trial and force the plaintiff to prove bad faith damages anew. The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion and denied Geico. After a second trial, the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff, and the court awarded damages of $369,247. Geico then appealed.

On appeal, Geico argued that the trial court erred by treating the excess verdict from the UM trial as conclusive evidence of Paton’s damages in the bad faith trial, which thereby denied Geico of procedural due process and violated its right to appeal and access to the courts. However, the Fourth District Court of Appeal found Geico’s argument unavailing. First, the court looked to the language of § 624.155, which created “a first-party bad faith cause of action by an insured against the insured’s uninsured or underinsured motorist carrier, thus extending the duty of an insurer to act in good faith to those types of actions.” State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Laforet, 658 So. 2d 55, 59 (Fla. 1995). In particular, it looked at the statutory amendments following the initial passage of the Act, which the Supreme Court of Florida previously noted reflect the Legislature’s determination “that damages in first-party bad faith actions are to include the total amount of a claimant’s damages, including any amount in excess of the claimant’s policy limits without regard to whether the damages were caused by the insurance company.” Laforet, 658 So. 2d at 60.

Furthermore, the court noted that “[the first action] between the insured and the insurer establishes two elements that must exist for the bad faith cause of action to accrue—the liability of the uninsured tortfeasor and the extent of the plaintiff’s damages in the underlying accident.” Accordingly, it would make little sense and waste judicial resources to, as Geico argued, re-litigate the amount of damages, especially since Geico had a full opportunity to participate at the first trial and, if desired, challenge the amount of damages by filing a motion for a new trial. Although the court further noted that there may be some issue regarding a possible jurisdictional bar to appellate review of the award of damages, since the full scope of overall liability and damages would not yet be determined until after the bad faith trial, the court concluded that it was not at issue here because “the record and damage issue are all part of the same case,” while citing other possibilities for preserving appellate review in alternative circumstances.

As this case demonstrates, an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist can lead to tiresome insurance wrangling and vexing legal conflict. Given the amount that can be at issue and the complexities that can arise, it is wise to get competent advice following an accident with an uninsured or underinsured driver. Frankl & Kominsky’s South Florida injury attorneys have considerable competence with insurance negotiation and litigation against negligent drivers and insurance providers, and we are ready to provide assistance if you’ve been in a motor vehicle accident and would like to know your recovery options. If you would like a free case consultation, feel free to contact us. We await your call.

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