Uninsured 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.