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Court divides over injury claim under insurance policy

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The Indiana Court of Appeals split today on whether a couple’s emotional distress claim constitutes “bodily injury” under their uninsured motorist coverage.

John and Sarah Taele witnessed in the rear-view mirror of their car the car accident that killed their daughter. She was riding in the car behind them when it was hit by an uninsured motorist. A piece of debris from the accident may have hit their car but they were not injured.  

The Taeles filed a complaint against State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. seeking uninsured motorist benefits for their emotional distress claims. State Farm claimed it didn’t have to pay the UM coverage because the Taeles didn’t sustain any “bodily injury” in the accident as defined by their policy and their alleged emotional distress from seeing their daughter die didn’t qualify as such an injury. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer.

In John Taele and Sarah Taele v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., No. 06A01-1004-CT-259, the judges took into account several previous cases in their decisions to affirm or reverse the trial court, including Shuamber v. Henderson, 579 N.E.2d 452 (Ind. 1991), in which the Indiana Supreme Court established the “direct impact” test in negligent infliction of emotional distress claims; and Groves v. Taylor, 749 N.E.2d 569 (Ind. 2000), which held if the direct impact test is not met, a bystander may establish direct involvement by proving he or she witnessed or came onto the scene soon after the death or severe injury of a loved one caused by the defendant’s negligent conduct.

Judges Michael Barnes and Ezra Friedlander concluded based on State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Jakupko, 881 N.E.2d 654 (Ind. 2008), Elliot v. Allstate Ins. Co., 881 N.E.2d 662 (Ind. 2008), State Farm Mutual Ins. Co. v. D.L.B., 881 N.E.2d 665 (Ind. 2008), Bush v. State Farm Mut. Ins. Co., 905 N.E.2d 1003 (Ind. 2009), and Armstrong v. Federated Mutual Ins. Co., 785 N.E.2d 284 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003), that the Taeles aren’t entitled to recover UM benefits because they weren’t directly impacted or directly physically injured by the accident.

“It does seem slightly incongruous that persons having NIED claims arising in a Shuamber-type scenario may be entitled to recover UM benefits for ‘bodily injury,’ but those having equally valid NIED claims arising in a Groves-type scenario are not so entitled,” wrote Judge Barnes. “Nonetheless, we presume that if our supreme court intended Groves-type claims to be covered under the definition of ‘bodily injury’ for purposes of insurance policy and UM statutory interpretation, it would have mentioned that case at some point in Jakupko, Elliott, D.L.B., or Bush.”

Judge Terry Crone dissented from his colleagues’ view that the Taeles didn’t sustain any “direct impact” in the accident and that their NIED claim arises under the Groves rule, not the Shuamber test. He compared the instant case to Conder v. Wood, 716 N.E.2d 432 (Ind. 1999), in which the Supreme Court held that plaintiff Wood sustained the requisite direct impact necessary to maintain an NIED action when she pounded on the side of the defendant’s truck, which hit her friend, to try to get the truck to stop before it crushed her friend. A piece of debris hit the windshield of the Taeles’ car and “in my view, this is sufficient to establish a ‘direct impact’ for purposes of the modified impact rule,” he wrote.

“The critical commonality here is that both Wood and the Taeles personally witnessed the tragic accidents that killed their friend and daughter, respectively, and thus were ‘directly involved’ in the tortfeasors’ negligent conduct,” he wrote, adding he would reverse summary judgment and remand for further proceedings.

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