In Heflin v. Merrill, the Mississippi Supreme Court considered an underinsured motorist case. The plaintiff sued her underinsured motorist insurance carrier after a car accident. The underinsured motorist carrier admitted liability and agreed to pay damages that were awarded, but the plaintiff wanted to tell the jury that the insurance company was a defendant.
The case arose when a man crashed into the back of a couple’s car. The wife sued the man’s estate and her underinsured motorist carrier. Before trial, the carrier admitted liability and offered to stipulate in writing that the wife was an insured under its policy and it would pay the final judgment in excess of the estate’s liability coverage. The insurer moved to exclude any reference about its role in the trial and exclude evidence that the woman’s car had underinsured motorist coverage. The trial court granted the carrier’s motion, reasoning that the underinsured motorist coverage was irrelevant to the issues to be considered at trial. It also reasoned that introducing evidence of the issue or revealing that the carrier was part of the trial might prejudice the jury when it determined damages.
During the trial, the defense made two objections regarding the at-fault driver’s statement he was sorry for the accident and the husband’s opinion about how fast the at-fault driver’s car was going. The husband was prepared to testify as to the apology, but the defense objected on grounds of hearsay. The trial judge sustained the objection. The trial judge noted that the statement wasn’t hearsay but still excluded it, saying that the person who made the statement was deceased and the defendant had admitted liability, so the statement would only inflame the jury.
The husband was also going to give his opinion about the deceased person’s speed, arguing that he was uniquely qualified to offer a lay opinion, since he worked for the underinsured motorist carrier as an auto insurance agent. This testimony was also excluded.
The jury awarded the wife $32,500, which was within the deceased’s liability policy limits. The wife filed a motion for new trial, which was denied. The wife appealed, arguing that the trial court had made a mistake in not disclosing the insurance carrier’s involvement, sustaining evidentiary objections, and not granting her post-trial motions. The appellate court affirmed. It found there was no reason for the jury to consider the underinsured motorist policy.
The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed to review the case because it presented the novel issue of whether the jury needed to be informed of an underinsured motorist carrier’s role as a party to the lawsuit. The Court explained that the insurer’s role could only be revealed if it was demonstrably relevant. Evidence is relevant when it has a tendency to make the existence of any fact more probable or less probable than it would be if the court did not admit the evidence. The court will look at the purpose of the evidence to determine relevance.
The Court reasoned that in this case it couldn’t find a purpose or any relevance for disclosing the insurer’s role. It further reasoned that evidence of insurance may not be presented at a trial to show who will pay the judgment. In general, even if evidence is relevant, it is properly excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the unfair prejudice or confusion of issues it also presents. The Court ruled that if a plaintiff wants to present the role of an underinsured motorist carrier’s role in litigation as a result of a defendant’s negligence, he or she must show the evidence is relevant and not unfairly prejudicial. In this case, the judgments were affirmed.
If you or a loved one has been hurt in a car accident, an experienced personal injury attorney may be able to help you recover damages from the person or entity responsible for the accident and any other entity responsible for keeping the property safe. Contact the skilled team at Coxwell & Associates, PLLC for a free consultation today.
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