Articles Posted in Insurance

Where plaintiff failed to have service issued for over a year against the defendant driver in a car accident case, her claim against her uninsured motorist insurance carrier was barred.

In Davis v. Grange Mutual Casualty Group, No. M2016-02239-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Sept. 28, 2017), plaintiff filed suit on March 20, 2015 after a car accident, naming both the defendant driver and her uninsured motorist carrier. The suit was filed within the one-year statute of limitations for personal injury actions, but plaintiff “did not cause a summons to issue to either defendant” until April 19, 2016, which was thirteen months after the complaint was filed. The summons was issued to the driver at his last known address and was returned unserved on April 21st by the sheriff with a notation that the driver was “not to be found in my county.”

On April 25th, “the trial court sua sponte dismissed the action for failure to prosecute.” Plaintiff filed a motion to set the dismissal aside on May 24th, and on the same day process for the insurance company was returned unserved. Second summonses were issued for both defendants on June 6th and 7th, and the driver’s was returned unserved indicating that he had died.

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While a case for personal injuries resulting from a car accident must be filed within one year, a claim against an insurance company for uninsured motorist coverage arising from the same incident is not subject to that one-year statute of limitations.

In Bates v. Greene, No. W2016-01868-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. July 27, 2017), plaintiff had been injured in a car accident. Plaintiff filed a timely suit less than one year after the accident against the driver of the other car, but the civil warrant was returned unserved. An “alias civil warrant was issued for [the driver], but it was also returned unserved.” Two years after the accident, an amended warrant was issued, adding plaintiff’s uninsured motorist insurance carrier as a defendant.

Defendant insurance company filed a motion for summary judgment, “asserting that the claim against it was barred by the one-year statute of limitations applicable to personal injury actions.” Plaintiff responded that “she was asserting a contract claim…, subject to a six-year statute of limitations, rather than a tort claim…” The trial court granted the motion for summary judgment, but the Court of Appeals reversed.

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 The case of Barrick v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. and Jones, No. M2013-01773-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. June 27, 2014) first begins in 2008, when the Barrick family was sued after their minor son accidentally killed a motorcyclist in a tragic crash while driving his father’s car.  For over 20 years, the Barricks had been insured with State Farm through their insurance agent Thomas Jones. Unfortunately, however, at the time of the crash their policy limits for auto liability coverage was only $100,000 per person. The family of the deceased motorcyclist ultimately settled their lawsuit against the Barricks for a total sum of $200,000, with State Farm paying $100,000 and the Barricks paying the remaining $100,000 in excess of their policy limits.

Thereafter, the Barricks sued State Farm and their insurance agent, Mr. Jones, and asserted claims of negligence, negligent training and supervision (of Mr. Jones by State Farm), assumption of duty (because Mr. Jones had taken additional duties beyond those of an insurance agent by recommending and also selecting the Barricks’ insurance coverage limits), and violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”).  The trial court eventually dismissed all of the Barricks’ claims by granting State Farm’s and Mr. Jones’ motions for summary judgment, and the Barricks appealed.

On appeal, the Barrick court affirmed dismissal of the negligence claim, based on consideration of two undisputed facts: (1) that the Barricks had procured State Farm insurance through Mr. Jones for over 20 to 25 years, and (2) that the Barricks received copies of their insurance policies, declarations pages, and renewal notices during this time period. Relying on Tennessee precedent from Weiss v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Company, 107 S.W.3d 503, 506 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2001) – which holds that an agent’s duty ends when the agent obtains insurance for plaintiffs and properly provides copies, notices, and declarations – the Barrick court held that State Farm and Mr. Jones did not owe a duty to the Barricks and therefore could not be liable for negligence.

 An over-the-road truck driver parked his truck on the shoulder of a road, got out, walked across a five-lane highway to a convenience store, purchased a soft drink and chewing tobacco, walked back across the highway towards his truck, but in the lane second-nearest the truck was struck by a vehicle which fled the scene.  The truck driver was injured and sough coverage under his employer’s uninsured motorist policy.  The UM carrier denied coverage and moved for summary judgment arguing that the truck driver was not entitled to coverage because he was not “occupying” a covered auto at the time of the accident.  The policy defined “occupying” as “in, upon, getting in, on, out or off” a covered auto.  The trial court granted summary judgment and the truck driver appealed.  The case is Beech v. John Doe, No. M2013-02496-COA-R2-CV (June 11, 2014).

            The issue on appeal was whether the truck driver was “upon” the truck at the time of the accident for purposes of uninsured motorist coverage.  The court of appeals found he was not and upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment.  The court of appeals looked at a number of other cases interpreting “upon.”  Most notably, the court looked to Tata v. Nichols, 848 S.W.2d 649 (Tenn. 1993) in which the Tennessee Supreme Court found that the term “upon” when used to define “occupying” for purposes of UM coverage is ambiguous.  The Supreme Court adopted four criteria for determining whether a person is “upon” a vehicle so as to “occupy” it:

(1) there is a causal relation or connection between the injury and use of the insured vehicle;

 In Cleveland Custom Stone v. Acuity Mutual Insurance Company, No. E2013-02132-COA-R3-CV (June 10, 2014), the Tennessee Court of Appeals considered a myriad of issues in a case concerning an insurance company’s failure to pay insurance proceeds to the Plaintiffs for a building destroyed by fire. 

The business that owned the building sought to add insurance coverage for the building to the business’s existing insurance policy with Acuity when it purchased the building in 2007.  The business used USIG, an agent of Acuity, to procure the coverage.  USIG provided a certificate of insurance form at the closing of the sale of the building to the business.

Following the fire, Acuity denied payment and notified the business that it never had successfully added coverage for the building.  Acuity also alleged that the business owners intentionally set the fire. 

The California Court of Appeals explored the issue of the responsibility of an insurance agent is the case of Williams v. Hilb, Rogal & Hobbs Ins. Services of California, Inc., 177 Cal.App.4th 624, 98 Cal.Rptr.3d 910 (2nd Dist. 2009).

Insurance agents like to argue that they do not have a duty to advise a client that it should procure additional or different insurance coverage. However, the Williams case makes it clear that  when an agent assumes additional duties by holding  himself out as an expert he can be held liable for not procuring appropriate coverage.

This just makes sense.  Most folks rely on their agent to tell them what coverage they need, particularly in the commercial insurance field, but also in the consumer area.   Agents are in a far better position than potential insureds to know what types and amounts of insurance coverage should be in place.  To be sure, the agent cannot force a client to buy any type of coverage (just like a lawyer cannot force a client to follow his or her advice or a doctor cannot force a patient to stick to a diet) but the notion that insurance agent’s are nothing but salespeople is an outrage.

In most states the duty to defend an insured in litigation is broader than the duty to indemnify that insured. 

Here is a 50-state survey prepared by the highly regarded Chicago-based firm of Hinshaw & Culbertson on the duty to defend.  Here is how they describe the 105-page publication:

Duty To Defend contains a survey of the law of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia on an insurer’s duty to defend a lawsuit against its insured and related topics. Each state entry includes a discussion of the scope of the duty to defend in that state and of the test employed by the state to determine whether the insurer owes such a duty. The state entries also include discussions of whether the insurer may defend pursuant to a reservation of rights and the implications of doing the same, including conflicts of interest which may be created; whether a declaratory judgment action may be brought to determine the insurer’s rights and obligations under the policy; and the consequences of the insurer’s failure to defend where it has an obligation to do so.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has ruled that a drunk driver’s death was not "accidental" and therefore his surviving spouse could not collect accidental death benefits under an insurance policy.

The decedent’s blood alcohol level was fifty percent higher than the legal limit when he ran into the rear of a tractor trailer parked eight feet off a West Virginia road.  It was, of course, 3:49 a.m.

His wife sought "accidental death benefits" from an insurance policy provided by the decedent’s employer.  The policy provided coverage "if the insured dies ‘due to an accident.’  The Plan defined ‘accident’ as ‘an unexpected and sudden event which the insured does not  foresee.’ The Plan also provided that "ReliaStar Life has final discretionary  authority to determine all questions of eligibility and status and to interpret and construe the terms of this policy(ies) of insurance."  ERISA governed this case.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has issued an extremely important decision in the field of bad faith law.

In Johnson v. Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Company, No. E2004-00250-SC-R11-CV  (August 28, 2006), Justice Holder, writing for an unanimous court, reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld a bad faith verdict against Tennessee Farmers.

Johnson sued his own insurer after he got hit for an excess judgment in an auto case.  A 2-1 decision of the Court of Appeals took away a plaintiff’s verdict of $279,430.92 against Tennessee Farmers, saying that the trial judge had not charged the jury correctly on the law of bad faith.  Judge Lee dissented, saying the trial judge had gotten it right.