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Split opinion: Disclosure of insurance policy limit is reversible error

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Ruling on an issue of first impression, a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday rejected a jury’s award of $250,000 to the widow of a motorcyclist injured in a crash. The majority remanded for a new trial, holding that disclosure of uninsured motorist policy limits was irrelevant and prejudiced the jury.

The majority’s holding in State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Kimberly S. Earl and The Estate of Jerry Earl, 36A05-1212-CT-635, would align Indiana with other states such as Florida and Nebraska in which courts have ruled that disclosure of policy limits may be reversible error.

A Jackson Circuit jury awarded Jerry Earl $250,000 under his uninsured motorist coverage after he was run off the road by a tractor-trailer on Interstate 65. Both parties stipulated Earl was not at fault in the 2008 crash in which the trucker, apparently unaware of the crash, did not stop and was never identified. Earl since died from an unrelated cause.

“State Farm argues that the trial court erred when it allowed into evidence at a jury trial the $250,000 bodily injury limit provision contained in the Earls’ (uninsured motorist) insurance policy. State Farm contends that evidence of the bodily injury limit was both irrelevant and prejudicial. Determining that evidence of the bodily injury limit was in fact both irrelevant and prejudicial, we reverse and remand this cause to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion,” Judge John Baker wrote for the majority, joined by Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik.

Judge Patricia Riley dissented.

"State Farm asserts, and the majority agrees, that the amount of the verdict — which was exactly the maximum under the UM coverage — suggests that the jury was influenced by the evidence of the coverage limit,” Riley wrote. “However, the majority disregards the substantial amount of evidence reflecting Jerry’s extreme pain in the weeks after the wreck and the physical pain, mental suffering, and limitations he continued to suffer because of his injuries until his death.

"Prejudicial error is not established merely because the jury awarded the UM policy limit; rather, the more appropriate inference is that the jury followed the trial court’s instructions and, in light of the overwhelming evidence, arrived at the policy limit. I would affirm the trial court."    

 

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