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State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Earl

Supreme Court of Indiana

June 9, 2015

STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellant (Defendant below),
v.
KIMBERLY S. EARL AND THE ESTATE OF JERRY EARL, Appellees (Plaintiffs below)

Appeal from the Jackson County Circuit Court, No. 36C01-1008-CT-13. The Honorable William E. Vance, Judge. On Petition to Transfer from the Indiana Court of Appeals, No. 36A05-1212-CT-635.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT: Rodney L. Scott, Tricia Kirkby Hofmann, New Albany, Indiana; Chad M. Smith, Greensburg, Indiana.

ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: Roger L. Pardieck, Karen M. Davis, Seymour, Indiana.

Massa, Justice. Rush, C.J., and Dickson, Rucker, and David, JJ., concur.

OPINION

Page 338

Massa, Justice.

After Jerry Earl sustained severe injuries in a motorcycle accident, he and his wife sued State Farm to recover under the uninsured motorist provision included in their policy. We are asked to decide whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of their $250,000 coverage limit. Finding it did not, we affirm.

Facts and Procedural History

Jerry was an active man who enjoyed hunting, fishing, and building things. He made a living as a co-owner of a small construction business, using his years of experience in custom excavating and sewer work. In addition to spending his free time with his wife Kimberly and his grandkids, Jerry played in a men's basketball league.

Jerry's life changed dramatically on September 3, 2008. While riding his motorcycle south on I-65 in Scottsburg, a tractor-trailer entered Jerry's lane, forcing him to swerve out of the truck's way and into the median. Jerry was thrown from his bike at 65 miles per hour, resulting in extensive injuries. He sustained a fractured collarbone, a fractured shoulder blade, and fractures in all ten ribs on his left side, some of them crushed into fragments. He also suffered a pulmonary contusion, collapse of his left lung, laceration of his liver, skin abrasions, and a blood clot in his left leg. Jerry was transported to Indianapolis for treatment, which required " a multi-disciplinary trauma team." Tr. at 107. According to his family physician, " many people don't survive" what Jerry survived. Tr. at 108. Despite the seriousness of the accident, the driver of the tractor-trailer did not stop and was never identified.

After the accident, the road to recovery was long. Jerry spent two days in the hospital, he had several follow-up visits with his orthopedic surgeon who prescribed heavy pain medications, he continued seeing his family physician in Seymour about his injuries, and he went to five physical therapy sessions, continuing with the exercises at home. It took weeks for Jerry's ribs to heal, and the trauma permanently changed the anatomy of his shoulder joint so that one shoulder drooped lower than the other.

Eventually, in January, Jerry got back to the office to do light work, mostly paperwork, and he got back into a bulldozer in April or May. Still, he could not do excavation work, and he never returned to work full-time. According to Jerry's business partner, the business suffered as a

Page 339

result of Jerry's injuries. Other everyday tasks--whether moving animal feed, driving a car, playing with his grandkids, and even sleeping--were difficult and painful for Jerry. Kimberly reported this pain affected their relationship.

Jerry had a policy with State Farm, which provided uninsured motorist coverage up to $250,000 per person and $500,000 per accident. He made a claim under the policy, and when State Farm refused to pay out the full amount, he sued. Jerry alleged State Farm was " liable under the terms and conditions of the contract for insurance." App. at 22. Kimberly also brought a claim for loss of consortium.[1] While the case was pending, Jerry died of an unrelated illness; Kimberly became the personal representative of his estate and was substituted for him as a plaintiff.

State Farm admitted liability, so the case proceeded to a jury only on the question of damages. Before trial, State Farm moved to exclude any evidence of the coverage limit on the grounds it was irrelevant to damages. The trial court denied that motion. During trial, State Farm's counsel objected both times the limit was mentioned, once during opening statements and once when the insurance contract was offered into evidence. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict of ...


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