In the unlikely event that a first-party underinsured motorist (UIM) case goes to trial, it is often advantageous to make a motion before trial to exclude mention of insurance policies and policy limits. However, this strategy is not always available–as the following Oregon Court of Appeals case reveals.
Claims Pointer: In the following case, an insurer denied UIM coverage and the case went to trial. The trial court granted the insurer’s motion to exclude evidence of the policy limits and the jury returned a verdict for the insurer. The Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, however, because at the end of trial, the insurer would not stipulate that the responsible driver was underinsured. The takeaway from this case is that if you intend to exclude policy limits, you better be prepared to stipulate that there is an underinsured driver.
Thoens v. Safeco Insurance Co. of Oregon, 272 Or App 512 (July 22, 2015).
Susann Thoens (Thoens) was injured in an auto accident with an underinsured driver. Thoens was treated by her husband (a chiropractor in the office in which she worked) and then later saw a number of doctors that led to surgery on four levels of her cervical spine. Thoens’ medical bills totaled more than $200,000.
Thoens recovered $50,000 from the responsible driver. She then sought personal injury protection (PIP) benefits and UIM coverage from her insurer, Safeco Insurance Co. of Oregon (Safeco). Thoens had $500,000 in UIM coverage. Safeco initially paid Thoens her PIP benefits but cut off payment after an independent medical evaluation revealed that her treatment was unnecessary. Safeco denied UIM benefits altogether. The case went to trial and a jury awarded Thoens her PIP benefits but found for Safeco on the UIM claim. Thoens appealed.
Thoens first argued that the trial court should not have excluded evidence of insurance policy limits. At trial, Safeco made a motion to exclude any mention of either the responsible driver’s liability limit or Thoens’ UIM limit, arguing that the numbers would unfairly influence the jury to award a higher amount than it would if it was not aware of $500,000 limit. The trial court granted the motion.
During the trial, Safeco asserted that it did not owe UIM benefits because it was unaware of the responsible driver’s liability limit, which prevented a determination that the responsible driver was underinsured. At the end of trial, the trial court proposed that it would instruct the jury that the responsible driver was negligent and that he was underinsured. Safeco refused to stipulate that the responsible driver was underinsured. The jury returned a verdict for Safeco.
The Court of Appeal held that the trial court’s exclusion of policy limits was error, but only because Safeco refused to stipulate that the responsible driver was underinsured. The Court observed that the jury was asked to determine whether the responsible driver was underinsured, but not allowed to view any evidence of what the policy limits were–which is the only information used to determine whether a driver is uninsured.
The Court reversed the trial court’s ruling excluding evidence of insurance limits and remanded the case back to the trial court. The Court also addressed two important evidentiary issues regarding biomechanical experts that we will take up in our next case update.
Case updates are intended to inform our clients and others about legal matters of current interest. They are not intended as legal advice. Readers should not act upon the information contained in this article without seeking professional counsel.