Saturday, July 27, 2013

Uninsured Motorist and Underinsured Motorist Coverage in Mississippi

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a summary judgment ruling by Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Wingate. The Plaintiff's bad faith claim was dismissed but the 5th Circuit found that State Farm's denying or delaying payment of an Uninsured Motorists policy was bad faith.

Plaintiff is entitled to attorney time and extra-contractual damages brought on as a result of the denial of uninsured motorist benefits.

State Farm's duty to pay these benefits did not stop as a result of plaintiff's filing of a lawsuit.

Text of the Opinion is attached below:
http://600camp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/James-v.-State-Farm.pdf

Before STEWART, Chief Judge, and GARZA and ELROD, Circuit Judges.
CARL E. STEWART, Chief Judge:
Defendant-Appellee State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. (“State
Farm”) tendered the policy limit on its uninsured motor vehicle coverage to
Plaintiff-Appellant Faith James nearly thirty months after James was injured
in a car accident. James brought a bad faith claim under Mississippi law, and
the district court granted State Farm’s motion for summary judgment. For the
following reasons, we AFFIRM in part, REVERSE in part, and REMAND.
I. BACKGROUND
A. Facts
On February 3, 2006, James was involved in a car accident with Jarvis
Smith. The parties do not dispute that Smith’s negligence was the sole cause of
United States Court of Appeals
Fifth Circuit
F I L E D
June 21, 2013
Lyle W. Cayce
Clerk
 Case: 11-60458 Document: 00512283135 Page: 1 Date Filed: 06/21/2013No. 11-60458
the accident. James’s vehicle turned over at least once, and she was taken from
the scene in an ambulance to Wayne General Hospital. James received
numerous stitches for a head wound and testified in her deposition that she felt
significant pain in her chest, back, and head immediately after the accident.
At the time of the accident, James and/or her husband owned four State
Farm insurance policies. The policy on the vehicle James was driving at the
time of the accident included $5,000 in medical payments coverage, collision
coverage, and $10,000 per person in uninsured/underinsured motor vehicle
(“UM”) coverage. Each of the other three policies also provided $10,000 per
person UM coverage for a stacked total of $40,000 in UM benefits. The parties
do not dispute that James’s policies were in effect at the time of the accident.
After James promptly notified State Farm of the accident, State Farm quickly
paid out under its medical payments and collision coverage.
At issue is State Farm’s delay in paying James benefits under her UM
coverage. As the timeline of events contained in the record underpins our
analysis of James’s claims, we refrain from a lengthy factual recitation here and
instead present critical events in our below discussion. We now continue our
summary of this case’s background with an overview of its procedural history.
B. Procedural History
On October 23, 2007, James and her husband1
filed a complaint against
State Farm in federal district court on diversity grounds. On February 13, 2008,
James filed an amended complaint, which alleged that State Farm was
intentionally engaging in delaying tactics to avoid paying on the policies.
Because of this delay, the complaint alleged that State Farm had, inter alia,
committed the tort of bad faith.2 The complaint requested a jury trial and
1
James’s husband later voluntarily dismissed his complaint.
2
James also asserted that State Farm’s actions were “a breach of Defendant’s duties
of good faith and fair dealings and duty to fairly and promptly adjust claims under the
2
 Case: 11-60458 Document: 00512283135 Page: 2 Date Filed: 06/21/2013No. 11-60458
sought $40,000 due under the policy, compensatory damages, and punitive
damages.
Over the next several months, the magistrate judge granted two motions
to compel against State Farm. On July 29, 2008, State Farm paid its stacked
UM policy limit of $40,000 to James. State Farm then filed a motion for
summary judgment on October 29, 2008. On May 6, 2011, the district court
granted State Farm’s motion for summary judgment, entered final judgment in
favor of State Farm, and dismissed the complaint with prejudice. No. 4:07-CV-
137, 2011 WL 1743421 (S.D. Miss. May 6, 2011). This appeal followed.3
II. DISCUSSION
On appeal, James makes two arguments related to her bad faith claim: (1)
State Farm withheld payment under one policy in order to coerce a lower
settlement for claims under other policies, and (2) State Farm unreasonably
delayed payment on the claim without a legitimate or arguable basis for doing
so.
A. Standard of Review
We review a district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. Bradley
v. Allstate Ins. Co., 620 F.3d 509, 516 (5th Cir. 2010) (citation omitted).
Summary judgment is appropriate when “the movant shows that there is no
genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment
as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a). A genuine dispute about a material
Plaintiffs’ policy.” Even if the pleadings indicate James may have asserted these as claims
separate from her bad faith claim, James has pressed only her bad faith claim on appeal.
3 On appeal, James appears to assert a separate breach of contract claim. The district
court apparently interpreted this claim as a sub-issue within James’s bad faith claim. On
appeal, James combines this claim with her argument as to the independent tort of bad faith.
Assuming arguendo that James intended to assert a breach of contract claim separate from
her bad faith claim, we hold this claim to have been waived on appeal because James points
to no policy provisions supporting this claim. See Fed. R. App. P. 28. Accordingly, we affirm
the district court to the extent that it granted summary judgment to State Farm on a breach
of contract claim.
3
 Case: 11-60458 Document: 00512283135 Page: 3 Date Filed: 06/21/2013No. 11-60458
fact exists when the evidence presented on summary judgment is such that a
reasonable jury could find in favor of the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty
Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). We view all facts and evidence in the light
most favorable to the non-movant, here James. Bradley, 620 F.3d at 516
(citation omitted). When a defendant moves for summary judgment and
identifies a lack of evidence to support the plaintiff’s claim on an issue for which
the plaintiff would bear the burden of proof at trial, then the defendant is
entitled to summary judgment unless the plaintiff is able to produce “summary
judgment evidence sufficient to sustain a finding in plaintiff’s favor on that
issue.” Kovacic v. Villarreal, 628 F.3d 209, 212 (5th Cir. 2010) (citations
omitted) (quoting Thompson v. Upshur Cnty, Tex., 245 F.3d 447, 456 (5th Cir.
2001). “[T]he propriety of summary judgment [is] bound up in the burdens of
proof at trial . . . .” Steven Alan Childress & Martha S. Davis, 1 Federal
Standards of Review § 5.02, at 5-26 (4th ed. 2010) (citing Anderson, 447 U.S. at
247-48, 254).
We review the district court’s interpretation of state law de novo, and we
“give no deference to its determinations of state law issues.” Bradley, 620 F.3d
at 516 (citation omitted).
B. Applicable Law
Because James brought this case in federal court on diversity grounds,
Mississippi substantive law applies. See Erie R.R. Co. v. Tompkins, 304 U.S. 64
(1938). “To determine issues of state law, we look to final decisions of the state’s
highest court, and when there is no ruling by that court, then we have the duty
to determine as best we can what the state’s highest court would decide.”
Westlake Petrochems., L.L.C. v. United Polychem, Inc., 688 F.3d 232, 238 n.5 (5th
Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). “In making an [Erie] guess in the absence of a
ruling from the state’s highest court, this Court may look to the decisions of
4
 Case: 11-60458 Document: 00512283135 Page: 4 Date Filed: 06/21/2013No. 11-60458
intermediate appellate state courts for guidance.” Howe ex rel. Howe v.
Scottsdale Ins. Co., 204 F.3d 624, 627 (5th Cir. 2000) (citation omitted).
1. Claim against insurer for bad faith
James asserts that State Farm committed the tort of bad faith when it
delayed payment on her UM claim. “[A] bad faith refusal claim is an
‘independent tort’ separable in both law and fact from the contract claim
asserted by an insured under the terms of the policy.” Spansel v. State Farm
Fire & Cas. Co., 683 F. Supp. 2d 444, 447 (S.D. Miss. 2010) (alteration in
original) (quoting Hartford Underwriters Ins. Co. v. Williams, 936 So. 2d 888,
895 (Miss. 2006)).
The Mississippi Supreme Court has recognized that claimants can bring
bad faith claims against and recover punitive damages from insurers who refuse
to pay out on a valid claim. See Caldwell v. Alfa Ins. Co., 686 So. 2d 1092, 1098
(Miss. 1996) (holding that denial of a valid insurance claim is critical for the
submission of punitive damages to a jury). Additionally, although Mississippi
courts are skeptical of such claims, they have permitted claimants to recover
damages on bad faith claims when resolution of an insurance claim is merely
delayed rather than ultimately denied.4 See, e.g., Travelers Indem. Co. v.
Wetherbee, 368 So. 2d 829, 834-35 (Miss. 1979)(affirming jury award for punitive
damages where insurer withheld payment for eight months); AmFed Cos., LLC
v. Jordan, 34 So. 3d 1177, 1191 (Miss. Ct. App. 2009) (affirming trial judge’s
decision to submit punitive damages issue to the jury in a delay-of-payment
case); Pilate v. Am. Federated Ins. Co., 865 So. 2d 387, 400 (Miss. Ct. App. 2004)
(“[T]here may be cases where a delay [of payment for one month] could possibly
be sufficient grounds for a bad faith claim.”); see also Essinger v. Liberty Mut.
4 Thus, here, we treat caselaw that refers to a “denial of a claim” as interchangeable
with a “delay of payment on a claim” unless the context indicates that the law pertains
specifically to a denial.
5
 Case: 11-60458 Document: 00512283135 Page: 5 Date Filed: 06/21/2013No. 11-60458
Fire Ins. Co., 529 F.3d 264, 271 n.1 (5th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted) (“Inordinate
delays in processing claims and a failure to make a meaningful investigation
have combined to create a jury question on bad faith.”); but see Tutor v. Ranger
Ins. Co., 804 F.2d 1395, 1399 (5th Cir. 1986) (per curiam) (reversing jury’s
punitive damage award where payment was delayed during an ongoing dispute
between insured and insurer); Caldwell, 686 So. 2d at 1098 (affirming grant of
summary judgment where insurance company delayed payment for three
months in complex wrongful death claim, including a six-week delay after it
completed its investigation).
Our review of the case law illustrates that whether to submit a delay-ofpayment claim to a jury is a highly fact-sensitive analysis.
2. Compensatory and punitive damages
James seeks to recover compensatory and punitive damages for State
Farm’s payment delay. In Mississippi, compensatory5
and punitive damages are
related. To establish a claim for punitive damages in the context of a bad faith
claim, a party must first establish her entitlement to compensatory damages.
See Broussard v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 523 F.3d 618, 628 (5th Cir. 2008)
(“Mississippi law does not permit parties to recover punitive damages unless
they first prove that they are entitled to compensatory damages.” (citations
omitted)). To do so, the trial judge must decide, as a matter of law, that the
insurer lacked ‘a reasonably arguable basis’ for denying the claim.” See id. at
628 (citation omitted) (quoting Andrew Jackson Life Ins. Co. v. Williams, 566 So.
2d 1172, 1186 n.13 (Miss. 1990); U.S. Fid. & Guar. Co. v. Wigginton, 964 F.2d
487, 492 (5th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted);Fulton v. Miss. Farm Bureau Cas. Ins.
Co., 105 So. 3d 284, 288 (Miss. 2012) (“When an insurer denies a claim without
an arguable basis . . . extracontractual damages may provide [a] form of relief.”
5 For purposes of this appeal, we use compensatory damages interchangeably with
consequential and extra-contractual damages.
6

 Case: 11-60458 Document: 00512283135 Page: 6 Date Filed: 06/21/2013

2 comments:

  1. I heard similar at the other site. It makes it so easy to know what you need.

    Harlin | http://www.decisions.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the share! The Mississippi accident lawyer I hired for my case was explaining this case to me yesterday. Its disgusting the way some of the insurance companies tend to treat people. Hopefully everything works out for all parties involved!

    ReplyDelete