Farm Bureau Insurance forced my partner, David E. Christensen, to try a serious auto accident injury case in Lenawee County, Mich. Lenawee County, which includes the cities of Adrian and Tecumseh, is considered a more conservative jurisdiction. Trial verdicts for serious personal injury cases tend to be lower there.
Our client was seriously injured by a reckless driver, a teenage girl, who slammed into his Yukon while driving illegally on the dirt shoulder of M-50 to avoid waiting a few extra seconds for traffic to clear. The victim had to be pulled out of his vehicle by the Jaws of Life and was transported by helicopter to the hospital. He suffered a serious traumatic brain injury and shoulder injuries.
Farm Bureau insured the vehicle this girl was driving. The Farm Bureau adjuster refused to make any meaningful attempts to settle this case.
Why Wouldn’t Farm Bureau Settle?
Why would an insurance company, in a very serious injury case — where everyone agreed the insured acted quite recklessly and foolishly — force a case to trial and refuse to make any meaningful attempts to settle?
Because, under Michigan law, a jury cannot be informed whether a defendant in a lawsuit has insurance, or that an insurance company will be paying the verdict. The public policy here is supposedly that telling a jury a defendant has insurance will result in higher verdicts, which would be unfair to the insurance companies.
But in this case, Farm Bureau made a calculation that turns the public policy of not telling juries about the existence of insurance on its head. Farm Bureau forced this catastrophic injury case to trial, knowing that the jury would not be told the teenage driver was insured, let alone that the insurance policy was very substantial.
In turn, Farm Bureau, its adjuster and defense lawyers led a jury to believe the teenage driver was the one who would be paying up; simply taking the attitude that a Lenawee County jury would never return a substantial verdict because they would feel sorry for her.
Keep in mind the teenage driver served 30 days in jail for felony reckless driving. But that was not disclosed to the jury either.
Michigan Insurance Company: Take it or Leave it
Farm Bureau used the evidentiary rule about insurance as a shield to hide behind, and as a sword to intentionally deprive our client of the full measure of his damages.
Farm Bureau and company were actually depending upon this jury improperly using unfair outside considerations — such as the obvious inability of the girl to pay any substantial verdict — to deliberately avoid responsibility for a catastrophic injury accident its own insured had caused. The insurance company wasn’t just depending on improper considerations by the jury, it was counting on it.
And this colored everything the defendant — the real defendant Farm Bureau — did to resolve the case.
The settlement offer was only $100,000. The Farm Bureau insurance policy limits were substantially higher than this amount. But the adjuster and defense lawyers were arrogant, believing it was impossible a jury would award much more than this, no matter how serious the injuries, because they were going to be looking at a teenager throughout the trial.
Their attitude toward our client was, “Take it or leave it. You will probably get even less.”
Thankfully, at least this time, the jury was not fooled by this insurance company tactic. On Tuesday, the jury returned a verdict of $2 million to protect and provide for the victim’s family.
Court Rule Needs Revisiting
I’ve been trying auto accident cases throughout Michigan for 15 years now and I personally feel what Farm Bureau did in this case was morally wrong.
The public policy behind this tactic that allows insurance companies to deliberately pervert a rule of evidence that’s meant to ensure fairness to both parties, needs to be re-examined.
It is time to ask: How we can let a rule be deliberately skewed to rob one side of its chance for a fair trial and just verdict?
It is time to think perhaps less about protecting insurance companies, which after all are paid handsomely for many years to protect their clients; and consider of all the people, who through no fault of their own, are seriously injured in car accidents and truck accidents.
Michigan Auto Law exclusively handles Michigan car, truck and motorcycle accident cases throughout the entire state. To talk to an auto accident lawyer contact us at (800) 777-0028.
Steve Gursten is head of Michigan Auto Law. He is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past co-chair of the Michigan Association for Justice Automobile Accident No?Fault Committee. He frequently writes and speaks about Michigan No-Fault laws, and is available for comment.
Lawyer Steve Gursten explains why an auto insurance company in some serious injury cases forces a case to trial through using public policy to hide who will be paying the verdict.