Where plaintiff asserted a defamation claim based on his car insurance company putting an “at fault designation” on a federally regulated database, summary judgment for defendant insurance company was affirmed.
Seely v. GEICO Advantage Insurance Company, No. M2021-01263-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 6, 2023) arose out of a dispute between an insured driver and his insurance company following a minor car accident. The insurance company determined that plaintiff driver was at fault, and it paid the claims from the injured party. Despite plaintiff’s assertion that the accident was caused by brake failure and his submission of receipts for brake work, GEICO put an “at fault designation” on plaintiff’s Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE) report. Plaintiff’s premiums were thereafter raised.
In his complaint, plaintiff asserted several causes of actions, including one for defamation. Plaintiff alleged that “[b]y filing an erroneous entry in Plaintiffs’ CLUE reports GEICO damaged not only their driving records but affected their creditworthiness and good names.” Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the defamation claim, which the trial court granted, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
The database on which the allegedly defamatory statement was posted is governed by the Fair Credit Reporting Act. In support of its motion for summary judgment, GEICO relied on 15 USCS § 1681h(e), which states in part that, except in certain circumstances, “no consumer may bring any action or proceeding in the nature of defamation” with respect to information reported pursuant to certain code sections “except as to false information furnished with malice or willful intent to injure such consumer.” Defendant argued that because plaintiff “failed to allege in the complaint and failed to identify any facts to establish that GEICO posted the at-fault entry with malice or willful intent to injure Plaintiffs,” plaintiff could not sustain the defamation claim, and the Court agreed.
The Court quoted the trial court’s decision, stating:
Failure to remove an at-fault injury based solely on the assertion by the insured that the action was not at fault, and not supported by any evidence that GEICO had some purposeful intent to harm these two plaintiffs is insufficient for purposes of the motion for summary judgment, and do not sink to the level of personal hatred, ill will, culpable recklessness, a willful and wanton disregard of the rights and interests of the plaintiffs.
Because plaintiff’s state tort defamation claim did not contain allegations of “such willfulness,” it was preempted by federal law and summary judgment was affirmed.
This opinion was released 3 months after oral arguments in this case.
Note: Chapter 28, Section 1 of Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law has been updated to include this decision.
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