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COA reverses award of attorney fees to couple

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The Indiana Court of Appeals found a trial court erred in awarding attorney fees to a couple that sued their insurer following a car accident. The trial court ruled that GEICO litigated the claim in bad faith.

Cheryl and Jim O’Mailia brought an underinsured motorist claim under their policy with GEICO after Cheryl O’Mailia was injured while riding as a passenger in someone else’s car. A week before trial, GEICO’s attorneys discovered on Florida Department of Public Health’s public website that Jim O’Mailia’s medical license was under investigation based on allegations he forged prescriptions for his wife, referred to as the Florida Information in the court record. He pleaded nolo contendere to violating five counts of Florida law by uttering a forged instrument and entered into a settlement.

GEICO did not alert the O’Mailias of the Florida Information it had found, and apparently the O’Mailias did not tell their counsel about the same. On cross-examination of Jim O’Mailia, the GEICO attorney brought up the Florida Information, leading to an objection by the O’Mailias. The GEICO attorney told the court their attorney did not disclose the information because he did not believe there was any obligation to based on trial rules.

Cheryl O’Mailia received a $125,000 judgment. The trial court denied the O’Mailias’ request for a new trial but awarded attorney fees under Ind. Code 34-52-1-1(b)(3), finding that GEICO litigated the action in bad faith with regard to its decision to not disclose the Florida Information. The court concluded that this failure to disclose ran afoul of Ind. Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(d).

In Geico General Insurance Company v. Laura B. Coyne, Cheryl A. O'Mailia, and James O'Mailia, 20A04-1307-CT-325, GEICO argued that it did not litigate in bad faith, and it points to the fact that it researched whether it had a duty to disclose and decided that there was none. The O’Mailias claimed that GEICO’s focus on the Indiana Trial Rules and Rules of Evidence is misplaced because the court found that GEICO’s counsel’s “actions were a breach of professionalism and courtesy and were prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

Based on the statements by GEICO’s counsel, the appellate court concluded that the decision not to disclose the Florida Information was not borne out of ill will, and was not dishonest or immoral, but instead was strategic in nature and believed to be within the bounds of the law.

“Indeed, the O’Mailias, as well as the court, agreed with the results of GEICO’s research that neither the Trial Rules nor the Rules of Evidence compelled GEICO to disclose the information, nor has case law been uncovered imposing such a duty. We cannot say that such circumstances are indicative of litigating in bad faith,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote.

Judge Michael Barnes concurred, writing, “I do so with some hesitation, though, because I believe that trial by ambush and rabbit-out-of-the-hat moments are not to be favored in our courtrooms.”

 

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