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Georgia Supreme Court Resolves Issue of Burden of Proof in Uninsured Motorist Claim

In any personal injury lawsuit arising from a car accident, the parties will each be expected to plead and present evidence that supports their relative legal positions. Depending on the facts and the procedural phase of the case, the burden of proof often shifts from one party to another as evidence is presented. Since each car accident case is unique, courts sometimes must step in to resolve questions concerning which party is obligated to prove certain elements of a claim. To ensure that your car accident case moves along efficiently and with the best possible strategy for a recovery, it is important that you contact a local Atlanta injury attorney who is fully familiar with the court’s procedural requirements applicable to such claims.

The Georgia Supreme Court recently addressed a dispute between an insured plaintiff and his uninsured motorist (“UM”) carrier over which party had the burden to prove that the “at-fault” driver was not insured within the meaning of the UM policy. In this case, Travelers Home and Marine Insurance Company v. Castellanos (Ga. Sup. Ct. 2015), the plaintiff was injured in a car accident in 2009. He brought a negligence suit against Jose Santiago, the alleged “at-fault” driver. The plaintiff received a judgment against Santiago for damages, both punitive and compensatory. During the trial, Santiago’s insurer, United Automobile Insurance Company (“United”), defended the case, but Santiago did not attend the proceedings.

Once the trial was over, United presented the plaintiff with a settlement offer for an amount that was less than the judgment, due to United’s argument that Santiago’s policy did not cover punitive damages. The plaintiff rejected the offer, and then United denied any coverage, claiming that Santiago failed to cooperate in defending the lawsuit, as the policy required. Next, the plaintiff sought to recover from his UM insurer, Travelers Home & Marine Insurance Company (“Travelers”). Under the UM policy, the plaintiff is covered for certain damages that an insured is “legally entitled to recover” from the person who owns or operates an “uninsured motor vehicle.”

After Travelers failed to respond to the plaintiff’s demand for payment under the UM policy, he brought a lawsuit against the insurer. Travelers argued that United did not legally deny coverage under the policy, and therefore Santiago was not an uninsured motorist, and the plaintiff was not covered under the UM policy. The trial court granted Travelers’ motion for summary judgment, pointing out that the plaintiff failed to provide evidence that United legally denied coverage. A majority of the court of appeals reversed that decision, concluding that the lower court should not have shifted the burden of proof onto the plaintiff to present evidence to rebut the UM insurer’s defense. The dissent disagreed, contending that it was the plaintiff’s burden to prove that Santiago was an uninsured motorist. In order to do that, the plaintiff would have been required to show that United legally denied coverage.

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed and affirmed the trial court’s view. The Court reviewed Georgia case law as it pertains to a justifiable denial of coverage for an insured’s non-cooperation in the defense of a case. The Court concluded that the plaintiff was required to prove that United’s denial of coverage was legally sustainable, rendering Santiago an uninsured motorist. Essentially, the plaintiff should have provided evidence to show that United “reasonably requested” Santiago’s cooperation in the negligence action, that he intentionally and willfully refused to cooperate, and that prejudice resulted.

The Court found that the plaintiff failed to satisfy the first two elements of his burden of proof, and it reluctantly ruled in favor of Travelers and granted the insurer its summary judgment motion. This case nicely illustrates the need to understand the law as it applies to negligence claims arising out of car accident claims. Stephen M. Ozcomert is an injury attorney with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another’s negligence in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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