Articles Posted in Uninsured Motorist

Earlier this month, an appellate court issued an opinion in a Florida personal injury case involving a pedestrian who was struck by a golf cart and sustained serious injuries. The case illustrates the difficulties that are common when dealing with an insurance company in the wake of a serious accident.

Unfortunately, the operator of the golf cart responsible for causing the accident did not have sufficient insurance coverage to fully compensate the victim for her injuries. Thus, the victim was forced to file a claim with her own insurance company, under the underinsured motorist provision. The case required the court to determine if the accident victim’s policy covered the accident.

The Plaintiff’s Insurance Policy

The plaintiff’s insurance policy provided for both liability protection as well as underinsured motorist protection. The language describing the policy’s liability protection included coverage for all accidents involving cars and trailers. However, the policy contained an exclusion for vehicles that were not generally used for public roads. That being said, the exclusion specifically excepted accidents involving non-owned golf carts from the exclusion.

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In addition to determining fault, juries are often tasked with the responsibility of setting damages, the amount an injured party may recover from a liable party. Obviously, most jury members are not experts who are perfectly capable of setting a damages amount with mathematical certainty, and even though expert testimony is often enlisted to help guide juries, jury verdicts are often hotly disputed.  Although damages awards, like all jury determinations, are entitled to deference, a court does have discretion to alter a damages award it determines is too high or low. However, when a court exercises this power, disputes regarding the damages award are often just as bitter. Indeed, in a recent decision, Arnold v. Security Nat’l Ins. Co., the Fourth District Court of Appeal needed to address whether it was proper for a trial court to reduce a jury verdict the trial court considered excessive.

Arnold began with a car accident that left the plaintiff in this case seriously injured. The other driver did not have motor vehicle insurance, and the plaintiff brought suit against his personal uninsured motor vehicle insurance provider. In his complaint, the plaintiff alleged that he suffered physical, emotional, and financial damage as a result of the uninsured driver’s negligence. The case ultimately proceeded to trial, at which the plaintiff produced expert testimony related to the past and future medical expenses he would likely incur as a result of a herniated disc resulting from the accident. His insurance company argued, however, that the plaintiff’s injuries were a result of prior injuries and dissociated, natural degenerative conditions.

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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.

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