Policy Limits Irrelevant in UIM Trial

Jury Should Not Hear Available Limits When Deciding Bodily Injuries

Underinsured Motorist (UIM) coverage is designed to protect its insured and provide indemnity over and above the insurance available from the underinsured motorist. It reacts as if the underinsured tortfeasor had the extra insurance provided by UIM policy.

In Darren T. Lucca v. GEICO Ins. Co., United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania 2016 WL 3632717 (07/07/2016) the USDC was asked  to keep mention of the available policy limits from the evidence presented to – applying unusual Pennsylvania law – the jury charged with determining the value of Lucca’s injuries.

BACKGROUND

Darren Lucca sued his insurer Geico Insurance Company (“Geico”) for refusing to provide underinsured motorist benefits after he was injured in an April, 2011 car accident. The only issue before the court is the extent of the damages attributable to the accident. Geico moved in limine to exclude any testimony or other evidence relating to the underinsured motorist policy limits and the amount of premiums paid for the policy, arguing that those facts are not relevant to the limited issue to be decided by the jury. Mr. Lucca opposes the motion, contending that the case is one for breach of contract and the details of the contract provide relevant background information for the jury

On April 8, 2011, Plaintiff Darren Lucca was involved in a car accident due to the negligence of another motorist, causing him to suffer various personal injuries. At the time, his car was insured by Defendant Geico. As part of his policy, Mr. Lucca had underinsured motorist benefits. The other motorist had $100,000 in coverage through his insurance carrier, which Mr. Lucca alleges was insufficient to cover his injuries.

On January 8, 2015, Mr. Lucca sought Geico’s consent to settle his claim with the other motorist’s insurer for $75,000. He also sought underinsured motorist benefits from Geico. Geico denied his claim, believing that Mr. Lucca had received $75,000 from the other motorist’s insurance as an award in binding arbitration, not in settlement, and that therefore the other motorist was not underinsured.

The parties’ dispute is solely about the value of Mr. Lucca’s claim because liability will not be contested. Mr. Lucca outlines various items of damages in his pretrial memo, including wage loss, loss of future earning capacity, co-pays and prescriptions, and other medical bills.  Mr. Lucca opposed the motion.

DISCUSSION

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania allows jury trials for underinsured motorist claims. Geico, by its motion in limine, presents one of the previously unaddressed issues: whether information about an insured’s coverage limits and paid premiums is relevant, non-prejudicial evidence that may be introduced when the jury’s only task is to determine the amount of damages incurred by the insured.

Geico argues that although this is technically a breach of contract action, what is left to decide is much like a tort action, in that although the insured is making a “first party” claim, the value of the claim is based on “third party” principles of liability, causation, and damages. Geico contends that neither the amount of coverage nor the amount paid in premiums have any bearing on how severe Mr. Lucca’s injuries were. Geico also argues, in the alternative, that if this evidence comes in, then Geico should be allowed to offer evidence as to the underinsured tortfeasor’s coverage and the amount of that settlement.

Case law regarding this issue in Pennsylvania is almost nonexistent.  The one reported federal decision on the issue permitted the evidence to be introduced. In that case, evidence of the coverage limits for both the tortfeasor’s and the plaintiff’s insurance policy was permitted, as well as evidence of the amount the plaintiff received from the tortfeasor and the amount the plaintiff paid in premiums for the plaintiff’s own insurance.

The Court acknowledged that the bar for relevance is low. However, the amounts of the policy limits and paid premiums, facts that are undisputed and therefore not for the jury to decide, do not even reach that low bar.

The only issue for the jury to decide in this matter is the extent of Mr. Lucca’s injuries from the accident. That Mr. Lucca’s policy includes a $900,000 underinsured motorist limit or that his stepfather paid a certain amount in premiums for the policy does not have any tendency to make any fact at issue in this case more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Indeed, not only is the policy limit irrelevant in this case, introducing evidence of the policy limit may very well serve to prejudice Geico by giving the jury an anchor number that has no bearing on Mr. Lucca’s damages. For these reasons, the Court excluded at trial any mention of the policy limits or the amount of premiums paid.

Once a verdict has been rendered by the jury on the amount of damages suffered by Mr. Lucca, the Court can mold the verdict appropriately to reflect the limits of both Mr. Lucca’s policy and the third party tortfeasor’s policy.

ZALMA OPINION

It has been recognized for more than a century that disclosing to a jury called upon to decide the value of bodily injuries incurred as a result of an automobile accident should never be told about the limits of insurance available to the tortfeasor so as not influence the decision of the insurer. The availability of insurance is irrelevant to the issue of damages and if disclosed to the jury can prejudice the defendant by by giving the jury an anchor number that has no bearing on the extent of the injuries.

ZALMA-INS-CONSULT                      © 2016 – Barry Zalma

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 49 years in the insurance business.  He now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes.

Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of theLEGEND-TROPHY-2 first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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