ILNews

Court reverses insurer's summary judgment

Jennifer Nelson
January 1, 2007
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The Indiana Court of Appeals today reversed a summary judgment award in favor of an auto insurance company, holding that an uninsured-motorist claim was not barred by state statute and language of the insurance policy.

In Mary Lou Smith, et al. v. Auto-Owners Insurance Co., No. 84A01-0611-CV-516, the appellate court had to decide whether Smith's claim for uninsured motorist coverage against her policyholder, Auto-Owners, was allowed based on her policy and Indiana Code 27-7-5-4.

Smith and several family members were involved in a car accident caused by Nellie Rogers in February 1999. The Smiths filed a personal injury action against Rogers in February 2001. Just a few days before the trial was set to start in 2004, Rogers' attorney told the Smiths' attorney that Rogers' insurance company, Highlands Insurance Co., had filed for receivership in Texas. That same day, the Smiths' attorney sent a letter to Auto-Owners to inform the company the Smiths would be making an uninsured-motorist claim. Later, the Smiths added Auto-Owners as a defendant in their personal-injury action.

Auto-Owners filed a complaint for declaratory judgment, arguing Indiana statutes and the terms of the Smiths insurance policy prevented them from making an uninsured motorist claim more than two years after an accident. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of Auto-Owners.

At issue in this case is the interpretation and application of the insurance policy and definition of insolvency regarding uninsured-motorist claims as defined by Indiana Code, wrote Judge James Kirsch. He and Judge Margret Robb overturned the trial court grant of summary judgment.

Indiana Code 27-7-5-4 says uninsured motorist coverage under an insurer's insolvency protection applies only when the tortfeasor's insurer becomes insolvent within two years after the accident. The Smiths' insurance policy with Auto-Owners also says they must file an uninsured-motorist claim within two years from the date that the cause of action accrued. However, in the Smith's case, the cause of action for the claim is the insolvency of Rogers' insurer.

Before discovering Highland had become insolvent, the Smiths would not have been able to bring a claim for uninsured motorist with Auto-Owners, wrote Judge Kirsch. The statute of limitations for IC 27-7-5-4 runs from the date of the accident or the date of the insurer's insolvency, whichever is later. For someone to claim uninsured-motorist coverage due to insolvency of the tortfeasor's insurer, the cause of action is not complete until there is an accident, the tortfeasor's insurer becomes insolvent, and the injured party learns of the insolvency. Judge Kirsch wrote the claim does not need to be filed within two years of the accident but within two years after learning the tortfeasor's insurer became insolvent. Even though Highland was placed in receivership in November 2003, the Smiths didn't learn about until just before their trial in March 2004.

Because questions of fact exist as to when the insolvency of Highland occurred and if the Smiths then filed their claim in a timely manner, summary judgment in favor of Auto-Owners is reversed.

Judge Michael Barnes dissented from the majority because he believed the plaintiffs do not present a question of fact regarding the potential date of Highland's insolvency and the plain language of IC 27-7-5-4 bars the plaintiffs' suit. Indiana Code would require the Smiths to present evidence that as of February 2001, Highland was unable to pay its obligations or its liabilities exceeded its assets at the time. The Smiths rely on receivership documents, which did not come out until four years after the date of the accident and those documents show Highland was not experiencing financial difficulties until after the two years as is required by Indiana Statute and Auto-Owner's policy.
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  1. Your article is a good intro the recent amendments to Fed.R.Civ.P. For a much longer - though not necessarily better -- summary, counsel might want to read THE CHIEF UMPIRE IS CHANGING THE STRIKE ZONE, which I co-authored and which was just published in the January issue of THE VERDICT (the monthly publication of the Indiana Trial Lawyers Association).

  2. Thank you, John Smith, for pointing out a needed correction. The article has been revised.

  3. The "National institute for Justice" is an agency for the Dept of Justice. That is not the law firm you are talking about in this article. The "institute for justice" is a public interest law firm. http://ij.org/ thanks for interesting article however

  4. I would like to try to find a lawyer as soon possible I've had my money stolen off of my bank card driver pressed charges and I try to get the information they need it and a Social Security board is just give me a hold up a run around for no reason and now it think it might be too late cuz its been over a year I believe and I can't get the right information they need because they keep giving me the runaroundwhat should I do about that

  5. It is wonderful that Indiana DOC is making some truly admirable and positive changes. People with serious mental illness, intellectual disability or developmental disability will benefit from these changes. It will be much better if people can get some help and resources that promote their health and growth than if they suffer alone. If people experience positive growth or healing of their health issues, they may be less likely to do the things that caused them to come to prison in the first place. This will be of benefit for everyone. I am also so happy that Indiana DOC added correctional personnel and mental health staffing. These are tough issues to work with. There should be adequate staffing in prisons so correctional officers and other staff are able to do the kind of work they really want to do-helping people grow and change-rather than just trying to manage chaos. Correctional officers and other staff deserve this. It would be great to see increased mental health services and services for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the community so that fewer people will have to receive help and support in prisons. Community services would like be less expensive, inherently less demeaning and just a whole lot better for everyone.

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