Missouri Court of Appeals Reverses Uninsured Motorist Decision in Fatal Auto Accident – Lero v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co.
Insurance coverage disputes come up frequently in my work as a St. Louis car crash lawyer. Insurance companies exist to make money, like all businesses, and part of the way they do that is by limiting the amount of money they pay to their insureds after an accident creates an insurance claim. Sometimes, this even leads to the insurance company denying coverage it’s required to provide under its own policy. This is a form of breach of contract called insurance bad faith, and insurance clients can and should protect their rights with a lawsuit when they are unfairly denied coverage. Lero v. State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. was an insurance bad faith claim that found its way to the Missouri Court of Appeals. The Leros sought to collect for an uninsured motorist claim on an umbrella insurance policy, but the appeals court found no right to coverage.
Paul and Carolyn Lero are the parents of Denise Greene, who died in October of 2008 when a drunk driver crossed a median and hit her car head-on. They successfully sued the owner of the driver’s car and received a $2 million judgment, but that insurance company denied coverage. The Leros then turned to Greene’s uninsured motorist coverage, which paid the policy limit of $50,000. They attempted to also collect on an umbrella policy Greene had, but State Farm denied that the policy covered accidents with uninsured motorists. The Leros sued State Farm for breach of contract, arguing that the umbrella policy was intended to provide excess coverage over Greene’s auto insurance and also that the uninsured motorist coverage was a prerequisite to the umbrella coverage. After striking several defenses State Farm raised as new defenses, the trial court granted summary judgment to the Leros, and State Farm appealed.
The Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that the stricken defenses were ultimately determinative of whether there was uninsured motorist coverage available. The trial court had found State Farm was estopped from arguing that its only coverage was that listed in a specific place, and that the Leros were impermissibly attempting to shift the burden of proof when they argued that uninsured motorist coverage was not excluded. On the first point, State Farm argued on appeal that estoppel was inappropriate; on the second, that striking the defense essentially created the coverage the Leros sought. The appeals court found that the Leros failed to establish true inconsistency between the initial denial and the later defenses, and therefore that State Farm should not have been estopped from using them. State Farm cited the policy in its denial letter and enclosed the relevant section of the policy. The company consistently asserted this later, it added. Because estopping this defense was inappropriate and created new coverage, the appeals court reversed the summary judgment for the Leros and entered it for State Farm.
As a southern Illinois auto accident attorney, I am disappointed by this ruling. When a family member dies through no fault of her own, families are understandably upset, and pursuing justice through the civil court system may be their only option. It’s disappointing that after the Leros pursued their case through at least three different courts, they were ultimately able to collect only a small part of their $2 million judgment. It would be interesting to know why the family did not pursue coverage from the insurance companies of the at-fault driver and that car’s owner (different people). As an experienced Missouri car wreck lawyer, I would not be surprised to discover that the at-fault driver, who was drunk, was not insured in the first place. This underscores why it’s so vital to buy uninsured motorist coverage — so in the event of a catastrophic crash, you have at least some compensation.
If you were seriously injured by someone else’s negligence behind the wheel and you’d like to discuss your case with an experienced attorney, call Carey, Danis & Lowe today. For a free, confidential case evaluation, you can reach us at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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