Court rules on 3 emotional distress cases

Michael W. Hoskins
January 1, 2008
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The Indiana Supreme Court says that insurance policy language "bodily injury" includes emotional distress subject to its own damage limits, but only if those making the claim are directly involved in the underlying accident or incident.

A trio of anticipated rulings came late afternoon on Feb. 28 from the state's highest court, with Justice Frank Sullivan authoring all three as they involve similar cases regarding insurance policy coverage of emotional distress. The cases are: State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Patricia Jakupko, et al., No. 29S02-0704-CV-140, Austin J. Elliott, b/n/f William K. Elliott, et al. v. Allstate Insurance Co., No. 49S02-0704-CV-143, and State Farm Insurance Co. v. D.L.B., No. 89S05-0802-CV-102.

The 13-page unanimous ruling in Jakupko is the meat of the bunch, but the five-page D.L.B. decision clinches the decisions involving this complex area of insurance law.

Attorneys on both sides of the aisle in these cases credit the court for taking a considerate and reasonable approach.

"They are being sensitive to emotional distress claims getting out of hand," said Indianapolis attorney Scott Montross, who represented the Jakupko family. "They want to make it clear that there has to be a strong connection with the incident. That makes sure we don't lower the bar and let this get abused."

On the insurance industry's side, Bose McKinney & Evans attorney Brian Babb, who represented national and state trade groups as amicus parties, had a similar take.

"This is really a masterful stroke, what they did here," he said. "They've struck a reasonable compromise and swept away all the language that had broadened common law claims of emotional distress without any limitation."

To be clear: Babb lost.

"Although we're disappointed, these three decisions taken together represent a reasonable compromise," he said. "This is going to have an impact on the insurance industry, but it's reasonable and manageable."

Last May, the court heard consolidated arguments in Jakupko and Elliott, and recently agreed to accept D.L.B. as it involves an identical issue, with a twist.

Both in Jakupko and Elliott involve passengers in auto accidents who claimed they suffered negligent infliction of emotional distress, with and without physical manifestations, after being injured themselves and witnessing severe injury to a family member. The family-member passengers of the insurance policyholders sought coverage under uninsured and underinsured provisions of their contracts, arguing that each should be able to recover on their own claims subject to their own liability caps - $100,000 in Jakupko and $25,000 in Elliott, rather than having each person lumped into one policyholder's claim. Each would still be subject to a total accident cap in each case.

Circumstances are slightly different in D.L.B., though, as the case involves a bike-riding 6-year-old boy who witnessed his cousin get struck and killed by a car in July 2000 and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder as a result.

Following the Court of Appeals decisions on these cases, the insurance industry had concerns that the common law had been expanded to the point where there was no limitation, Babb said. Those concerns are gone now.

In the Supreme Court decisions, justices agreed with their appellate colleagues in that the term "bodily injury" covers emotional distress and is subject to its own "per person limit" as long as the claim arises from "bodily touching" - meaning that the person claiming emotional distress had to have been directly involved, not a third-party.

The Jakupko and Elliott decisions reach the same conclusion, though one trial court was affirmed and the other reversed based on those initial judgments.

Justices relied on multiple cases from across the country, but most specifically on Wayne Township Board of School Commissioners v. Indiana Insurance Co., 650 N.E.2d 1205 (Ind. Ct. App. 1995) that held "sickness" included emotional distress when there was physical injury and each claim is a distinct "bodily injury." Part of that ruling also determined that emotional-distress damage wasn't included unless it arose from "bodily touching," or physical contact of someone directly involved.

The court also relied on that 1995 ruling in D.L.B., using the "bodily touching" definition to determine that the cousin couldn't recover for emotional distress because the car that struck and killed his cousin didn't directly injure him.

Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard wrote a separate, concurring opinion that steps back to offer a point of clarity to the court's decision in Jakupko.

"I do not read my colleagues' embrace of (caselaw) to suggest that a person who walks away from an accident without any damage to life or limb, not so much as a bruise, has suffered 'bodily injury' because he or she is 'distressed,'" he wrote, tying that decision to the others.

He also wrote that Richard Jakupko and his family should be covered for pain and suffering customary to tort damages.

Justices Brent E. Dickson and Robert D. Rucker dissented in the third decision, opining that whether a separate physical impact occurred was irrelevant to the court's construction of insurance policy language saying "bodily injury to a person and sickness, disease or death which results from it."

Karl Mulvaney, who represented State Farm in the Jakupko case, said he was disappointed in the ruling but that he understands why the court decided the way it did. He said it's too early to tell if a rehearing will be requested.

Indianapolis attorney John Townsend III, who also represented the Jakupkos along with Montross, praised the court's decisions.

"This protects the traveling public from attempts by the insurance industry to whittle away at coverage beyond what the legislature requires and consumers have a right to expect," he said.

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  1. This is ridiculous. Most JDs not practicing law don't know squat to justify calling themselves a lawyer. Maybe they should try visiting the inside of a courtroom before they go around calling themselves lawyers. This kind of promotional BS just increases the volume of people with JDs that are underqualified thereby dragging all the rest of us down likewise.

  2. I think it is safe to say that those Hoosier's with the most confidence in the Indiana judicial system are those Hoosier's who have never had the displeasure of dealing with the Hoosier court system.

  3. I have an open CHINS case I failed a urine screen I have since got clean completed IOP classes now in after care passed home inspection my x sister in law has my children I still don't even have unsupervised when I have been clean for over 4 months my x sister wants to keep the lids for good n has my case working with her I just discovered n have proof that at one of my hearing dcs case worker stated in court to the judge that a screen was dirty which caused me not to have unsupervised this was at the beginning two weeks after my initial screen I thought the weed could have still been in my system was upset because they were suppose to check levels n see if it was going down since this was only a few weeks after initial instead they said dirty I recently requested all of my screens from redwood because I take prescriptions that will show up n I was having my doctor look at levels to verify that matched what I was prescripted because dcs case worker accused me of abuseing when I got my screens I found out that screen I took that dcs case worker stated in court to judge that caused me to not get granted unsupervised was actually negative what can I do about this this is a serious issue saying a parent failed a screen in court to judge when they didn't please advise

  4. I have a degree at law, recent MS in regulatory studies. Licensed in KS, admitted b4 S& 7th circuit, but not to Indiana bar due to political correctness. Blacklisted, nearly unemployable due to hostile state action. Big Idea: Headwinds can overcome, esp for those not within the contours of the bell curve, the Lego Movie happiness set forth above. That said, even without the blacklisting for holding ideas unacceptable to the Glorious State, I think the idea presented above that a law degree open many vistas other than being a galley slave to elitist lawyers is pretty much laughable. (Did the law professors of Indiana pay for this to be published?)

  5. Joe, you might want to do some reading on the fate of Hoosier whistleblowers before you get your expectations raised up.