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Etherton v. Owners Insurance – $2.25M for Auto Insurer Breach of Contract

When you buy auto insurance and keep up with your monthly premium, it’s supposed to offer peace of mind. You trust that when you get into an accident, your damages will be covered. 

However, it happens fairly often that the cost of this “protection” is constantly on the incline and far too many claims are wrongfully denied, delayed or low-balled.

If your insurance company doesn’t treat you fairly, you have a few legal options. Bear in mind, though, you really cannot pursue them without the help of an experienced injury lawyer. Most of these claims will assert either bad faith or breach of contract. Although the ultimate award may be triple the original damages, these are complex cases that require a legal team with extensive experience. 

Recently, in the case of Etherton v. Owners Insurance Co., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed a $2.25 million damage award for a man who suffered breach of contract and an unreasonable delay or denial of underinsured motorist (UIM) benefits.

UIM benefits, if you aren’t familiar, are benefits paid by one’s own auto insurance company if the at-fault driver either doesn’t have insurance or doesn’t have enough insurance to cover the full extent of the damage.

According to court records in the case, plaintiff first filed his UIM claim with his insurer back in July 2009. He had a policy that provided UIM coverage of up to $1 million. The insurer of the other driver settled the claim for $250,000, and plaintiff sought the remainder of the $750,000 in damages from his own insurer.

For months, plaintiff and his insurer communicated regularly. Insurer kept insisting it needed more information and questioned the veracity of plaintiff’s claims – specifically, causation and extent of damages.

Insurer issued a settlement offer of $150,000, which plaintiff rejected. Plaintiff requested an explanation of why the offer was so low, and insurer responded it doubted the causation of plaintiff’s injuries.

Following a 6-day trial, jurors awarded an initial award of $1.5 million. District court later granted a motion to increase plaintiff’s damage award for the car accident injuries to $2.25 million for his claims of breach of contract and unreasonable delay or denial. The court arrived at this amount by doubling the amount of covered benefits.

Defendant appealed on grounds that plaintiff’s expert witness presented evidence with inadequate scientific methodology to assert causation. (This was a particular issue because although the collision resulted in minor damage to the vehicles, plaintiff asserted serious injuries to his back, forcing him to undergo three spinal injuries.)

Upon review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit affirmed.

The court looked at whether the theory or technique presented:

  • Can be tested;
  • Is peer-reviewed;
  • Has a known or potential error rate;
  • Is generally accepted by the scientific community.

This is referred to as a Daubert hearing.

Appellate court justices ascertained that the trial court’s review was sufficient to establish that the expert witnesses’ testimony was scientifically sound.

The court also held that the $2.25 million damage award was not excessive.

Justices could find no reversible error.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Etherton v. Owners Insurance Co., July 19, 2016, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

More Blog Entries:

Fatal Bus Accident in Florida Kills 5, Injures 25, July 18, 2016, Orlando Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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