Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia Holds Failure to Present Accurate Insurance Policy Language Not a Basis to Relitigate Claims Under WVRCP 60(b)

774605_car_accident_2.jpgCar wrecks are one of the most common events that give rise to personal injury claims, and when a vehicle accident occurs, insurance companies are invariably involved. In such cases, understanding the insurance policy at issue is of the utmost importance, and the language of that policy can have a huge impact on the recovery amount available to the injured persons. We here at the Wolfe Law Firm have handled cases for many victims who have been wounded in automobile, motorcycle, and tractor trailer accidents, so our West Virginia traffic accident attorneys are constantly monitoring changes in the field as new decisions are issued by the courts in this state. We recently discovered a decision rendered by the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia that shows just how important it is to be mindful of the wording and definitions contained within any insurance policy factoring into a case.

Adkins v. Erie Insurance Company is a case that arose from an automobile accident in 2005 that severely injured a young girl under the age of 18. The case began as a declaratory judgment action filed by the victim’s parents, who sought the court’s ruling as to whether they were entitled to damages that they incurred as a result of their daughter’s injuries and the medical costs of helping her recover. Plaintiffs alleged that the woman who caused the accident was insured by defendant Erie Insurance, and the policy she had purchased from defendant provided a $300,000 per accident limit and a $100,000 per-person limit. The victim’s case settled for the per-person limit of $100,000, and as a part of that settlement, plaintiffs reserved the right to file a declaratory judgment action against defendant in order to determine whether the defendant would have to pay an additional sum to plaintiffs under a separate per-person policy limit.

At the circuit court, defendants proffered evidence that their policy provided coverage for damages from “bodily injury, meaning physical harm, sickness or disease, including care, loss of services, or resultant death.” As a result of this definition, the court found that the plaintiff parents’ claims were separate and distinct from their daughter, and that their claims for expenses and medical treatment for their child. That meant that the claims were not subject to the limitation of liability provision restricting payment to the single, per-person limit. Defendant then moved under rule 60(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Civil Procedure for the court to vacate the order, contending that they had given the court an incorrect and inapplicable definition of bodily injury. Evidently, Defendant had amended the policy at issue so that damages involved “bodily injury, meaning physical harm, sickness or disease, or resultant death of a person” — meaning they had removed the language regarding care and loss of services. As a result of this motion, the circuit court reversed its earlier decision, and held that the per-person limit applied, and that her settlement prevented any further recovery under the insurance policy.

Plaintiffs appealed the circuit court’s reversal, claiming that the circuit court had abused its discretion by basing its ruling on what amounted to newly discovered evidence. The Appellate Court found that a failure to file documents in an original motion did not convert the evidence in those documents into newly discovered evidence under West Virginia law. However, the Court held in favor of the plaintiffs, because defendants had failed to present the correct version of its own policy, and that could not serve as a basis to relitigate all of the claims in a Rule 60(b) motion. In so holding, the Court reversed the circuit court’s decision.