E-Alert Case Updates
Identity of UM/UIM Insurance Carrier Must be Identified to the Jury when it is a Party to Civil Action
Dionne Davis, et vir. v. Tania Nicole Arevalo Martinez, et al.
In this recently issued opinion from the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, authored by Judge Wright, the Court of Special Appeals vacated a defense verdict and remanded the matter for a new trial. The Court held that the failure to have State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company identified as a party to the jury was reversible error.
This suit arose out of a relatively common set of facts surrounding a motor vehicle accident. In January 2008, a motor vehicle operated by Defendant Tania Martinez collided with a vehicle in which Dionne and Darryl Davis were traveling. The Plaintiffs alleged that Mrs. Davis sustained personal injuries, and the Plaintiffs also asserted a loss of consortium claim. At the time of the accident, Ms. Martinez was insured for the statutory minimum limits of $20,000 by USAA Insurance Company. The Davises had insurance with State Farm and carried $50,000 in underinsured/underinsured motorist (“UM/UIM”) coverage.
The Davises filed suit against Ms. Martinez in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. During the litigation, USAA offered its policy limits of $20,000.00 to settle the case for its insured (Ms. Martinez). The Davises sent notice of the tender to State Farm and requested that State Farm accept or reject the settlement offer. State Farm rejected the offer and instead put forth $20,000 to preserve its potential subrogation rights against Ms. Martinez pursuant to MD. CODE INS. § 19-511. Thereafter, the Davises amended their Complaint to add State Farm as a Defendant alleging breach of contract and/or a breach of its statutory duty to pay underinsured motorist benefits.
In advance of trial, Ms. Martinez filed a motion in limine seeking to preclude any mention of State Farm’s presence at the trial to the jury. Ms. Martinez argued that the jury’s knowledge of an insurance company being a defendant could bring the issue of insurance before the jury in a situation that might influence their verdict in the case. Specifically, she argued it could cause the jury to speculate on whether there is insurance coverage and who it is that would be paying any judgment when the jury needed only to determine if Ms. Martinez was negligent and the amount of any compensatory damages.
The trial court granted the motion in limine distinguishing the case from King v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 157 Md. App. 287 (2004). The trial court stated that, State Farm’s presence “ha[d] nothing to do with whether or not [Martinez] was negligent” and “It ha[d] nothing to do with what damages [the Davises] suffered.” As such, State Farm’s attorney participated in the defense of the matter without being specifically identified.
The Court of Special Appeals held that the failure to identify State Farm to the jury when it was in fact a party to the case was error. Analysis of the King case was at the heart of the Court’s opinion. In King, the Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion when it hid the existence of a UIM carrier from the jury. King, 157 Md. App. at 303. State Farm argued that King stands for the proposition that the identity of a UIM carrier cannot be hidden when the case is a breach of contract action against the UIM carrier alone. The Court held otherwise, holding up the strong public policy interest of having openness and transparency in the courtroom.
State Farm argued further that any error of the trial court was harmless as Ms. Martinez was not found to be negligent. State Farm contended, “to suggest the outcome of the trial may have been different if State Farm had been disclosed to the jury, is tantamount to saying that had the jury known one of the defendants was an insurance company, the scales would have tipped in favor of the Plaintiffs on the issue of liability.”
The Court brushed past this argument, however, stating that the law is clear on disclosure of an insurance company when it is a party at trial, and that the jury’s knowledge that the defense medical expert was retained by an insurance company may have affected their view of his credibility. As such, the Court vacated the defense verdict and remanded the case for a new trial.
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