§15.18 Effect on Tenn. Code Ann.§ 56-7-1201(UM Claim)

The Case: Poper v. Rollins, 90 S.W.3d 682 (Tenn. 2002).

The Basic Facts: Plaintiff was the husband of a deceased motorist who was killed in a multi-vehicle accident. Plaintiff brought wrongful death actions against the drivers of the other vehicles and a products liability action against the manufacturer of his wife's vehicle.

The Bottom Line:

  • "We Granted this appeal to determine whether the doctrine of comparative fault affects the application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(d). The statute establishes that the limit of liability for an insurer providing uninsured motorist coverage is the amount of the insurance policy coverage less the sum of the limits collectible under all other liability and primary uninsured motorist insurance policies, bonds, and securities. The trial court found that the statute operates as a liability 'cap' for uninsured motorist insurance coverage by offsetting the amounts of all other liability insurance limits collected with respect to the injury or death and that the doctrine of comparative fault does not affect the application of the statute. The Court of Appeals affirmed this finding, holding that the statute clearly limits the liability for uninsured motorist coverage by allowing the offsets described by the trial court. After reviewing the record and applicable authority, we hold that Tenn. Code. Ann. § 56-7-1201(d) unambiguously allows an uninsured motorist insurance carrier to limit its liability by offsetting all other insurance payments, bonds, and securities applicable to the injury or death in question and that Tennessee's comparative fault doctrine does not affect the application of the statute. We therefore affirm the Court of Appeals' judgment." 90 S.W.3d at 682.
  • "Poper nonetheless argues that this interpretation of the statute conflicts with this Court's comparative fault jurisprudence as adopted in McIntyre v. Balentine and its progeny. Specifically, he contends that our elimination of joint and several liability precludes Farmers from using the payments of the other defendants to offset its liability.FN3
    FN3 For support, Poper cites Sherer v. Linginfelter, 29 S.W.3d 451 (Tenn. 2000), in which we held that the principles of comparative fault limit an insurance company's subrogation rights under Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1204(a) to 'the injuries for which the insurer has made payment.' Sherer, 29 S.W.3d at 455. We find Poper's reference to Sherer unpersuasive because Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1204(a) only applies 'in the event of payment to any person under the coverage required by this part . . . .' Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1204(a) (emphasis added). In the case before us, the uninsured motor carrier, Farmers, never made a payment and was not required to do so for reasons discussed in this opinion. As such, Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1204(a) and the analysis in Sherer are inapplicable."
    Id . at 685.
  • "The Court of Appeals declined to accept Poper's position and instead held that this Court's abolition of joint and several liability did not affect the clear statutory language of § 56-7-1201(d). The appeals court relied on the language of Erwin v. Rose, 980 S.W.2d 203 (Tenn. Ct. App.1998), which said:
    While McIntyre v. Balentine did abolish joint liability, we do not think it changed the statutes that govern uninsured-underinsured motorist insurance or the private contract policy provisions that have been consistently construed to give the insurance company the credit it seeks in this case.
    Id . at 207." Id. at 685-86.
  • "Although this Court has never specifically addressed the effect of McIntyre upon statutes governing uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance, we agree with the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the elimination of joint and several liability underMcIntyre does not modify the specific language of or alter the meaning of Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(d) for the following reasons." Id. at 686.
  • "Accordingly, Poper's argument that Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(d) provides broad coverage for the insured and that adherence to McIntyre requires that he receive payments up to his actual damages even if the total exceeds the statutory minimum, conflicts with the limited language of the statute and its narrow purpose as described in Terry and reinforced in Cummings. We therefore conclude that Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(d) is not affected by the principles of comparative fault outlined in McIntyre." Id. at 687.

Other Sources of Note: Green v. Johnson, No. E2006-02666-COA-R3-CV, 2007 WL 2126394 at *3-*4 (Tenn. Ct. App. July 25, 2007) (affirming reasoning of Poe).

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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