After Karen Penland, from Pinellas County, Florida, was rear-ended and severely injured by a car driven by Leonor Risotto Carvajal, she sued Carvajal and her husband, the car’s co-owner, as well as her own insurance company, State Farm. She had purchased underinsured motorist coverage from State Farm, which is supposed to compensate victims of traffic accidents in the event that they suffer injuries, or incur medical bills and/or lost wages beyond the coverage available by the driver/owner(s) of the car or truck that caused a traffic accident.
As a Miami car accident lawyer, virtually every day I write about car accidents, slip and falls, defective products, and medical mishaps that occur across the State of Florida and the often treacherous journeys claimants endure in their quests for justice. Ms. Penland’s case is no different.
She sued both the Carvajals and State Farm, who not only refused to pay her claim adequately but also decided to drop her from coverage. Before the trial, State Farm sought what is known as a motion in limine or more appropriately a motion to eliminate certain facts or comments from the sensitive eyes and ears of the jury. State Farm’s lawyers were concerned that Ms. Penland and her lawyer would reveal to the jury just how much underinsured motorist coverage she had purchased and how much it had cost her to obtain it. State Farm did not want the jury to consider its obligation to Ms. Penland as contractual; instead, it wanted the jury to think that State Farm was simply stepping into the shoes of the Carvajals, availing it to the benefit of all of the defenses the Carvajals enjoyed, such as blaming Ms. Penland for the accident or attacking the validity of her alleged injuries. State Farm was afraid the jury would view the case against it as a breach of a contractual obligation to pay her claim automatically because she was in an accident.
Miami car accident lawyers know that normally, motions for limine are argued before the judge, and the proceedings are transcribed by a court reporter. However, since Ms. Penland’s lawyer agreed to State Farm’s request, there was neither. Notwithstanding the agreement, when Ms. Penland took the witness stand, she said, “I would never be here for any other reason but, you know, because I-I can’t believe they are not going to take care of this and be responsible. I paid my bills, I paid my insurance. It’s crazy.” Her lawyer tried to get her off the tirade, but she continued by stating, “I paid more. I had more. I had more coverage. And then they dropped me. Then I get dropped by them.” Upon hearing this, State Farm moved for a mistrial, which the judge denied.
Trial judges walk a tight line in evaluating motions for mistrial; having tried and mistried many cases in my career, one simple word—or, in the case of Ms. Penland, a few words—can cost weeks of valuable court time and a wait of months or even years to get a new trial. In Ms. Penland’s case it cost precisely $1,777,309.59, which is the amount the Pinellas County jury awarded her at the end of her trial. Not surprisingly, State Farm appealed the judge’s refusal to grant a new trial, and not surprisingly, a Florida appellate court agreed with the insurance company at the expense of the victim and took her verdict away. Read the Second District Court of Appeal Opinion in Carvajal and State Farm v. Penland here.
In order for a statement made in court to warrant a new trial, it must be objected to, with a request that the judge instruct the jury to disregard what it has just heard and a motion for new trial motion made. This must be done in order to preserve the argument on appeal. Alternatively, if no motion is made by the offended party, the statements must be so significant that they deprived the party of any chance of having a fair trial.
While as a Miami car accident lawyer, I understand the court’s ruling—as an effort to prevent juries from trying to punish insurance companies like State Farm for shirking their responsibilities and then retaliating against their own customers by dropping them from coverage after years or decades of paying premiums–I disagree. First, if in fact the courtroom is a machine designed to find the truth, does not hiding or placing in limine actual case facts defeat the purpose of a trial? Fact: State Farm did not pay the claim, and Fact: State Farm dropped Ms. Penland after she sued them. I think the jury should have heard this. What State Farm really did not like was the truth and, more importantly, the $1,777,309.59 answer the jury gave them.
This case does not stand alone; in another very similar uninsured motorist trial, a Broward County jury verdict against Allstate for nearly $1 million dollars was reversed by Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal last month in the case of Allstate Insurance Company v. Marotta. Both of these cases should alert all Miami car accident lawyers that arguments made at trial that suggest that a defendant’s insurance company failed to accept responsibility for the losses and harms caused by an accident may lead initially to a large verdict, but also to an almost certain reversal on appeal.
If you have a potential claim against an insurance company like State Farm, All State, or Progressive following a traffic accident in Florida, please contact our insurance claim lawyers in Miami for a free initial consultation at 305-441-0440 or Toll Free at: 866-597-4529. If you have a question regarding your policy, please Email me, Spencer Aronfeld, Miami car accident lawyer.