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. 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.