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Appeals Court Says Insurer May Be in Default for Late Filing

In any civil lawsuit, it is important for all parties to comply with certain deadlines. Courts require filing of documents within a certain time, and failure to comply can result in an adverse decision. A major auto insurance company recently learned that lesson from the Georgia Court of Appeals

Kelly v. Harris

In this case, the plaintiff was in an automobile accident with the defendant, who was an uninsured motorist. Because the defendant was uninsured, the plaintiff also served his own insurance company, seeking benefits under his uninsured motorist coverage. The insurance company later joined the lawsuit.

The timeline of these events is critical to understanding the case. The accident occurred in May 2011. The plaintiff notified his insurance company of his intention to file an insurance claim in February 2012. He then sued the defendant in October 2012 and served the insurance company with a copy of the lawsuit a few days later. The insurance company formally joined the suit in February 2013.

In July 2013, the insurance company filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing it should not be held liable for any uninsured motorist benefits because the plaintiff did not comply with the terms of his policy. The insurer said the plaintiff had a duty to notify it “as soon as possible” about the accident but instead he waited eight months—the period from May 2011 until February 2012—before doing so.

But the plaintiff turned the tables on the insurance company. He argued the insurer had waited too long to respond to his lawsuit—more than 100 days between November 2012 and February 2013—and therefore had defaulted in the litigation. The trial court disagreed and granted the insurer’s motion for summary judgment.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals sided with the plaintiff, however, and reversed the trial court. Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard, writing for the panel, said the insurer clearly failed to file a timely response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit. The trial court had only ruled for the insurance company because of a “typographical error” in a previous Court of Appeals opinion that caused some confusion regarding the appropriate filing deadline. (Judge Dillard emphasized this was the fault of the Court of Appeals, not the trial judge.) Judge Dillard explained that once the plaintiff served a copy of his lawsuit on the insurer, the company then had 30 days to respond—not the 100-plus days it actually took.

In any civil lawsuit, a court may award default judgment to the plaintiff if the defendant does not file a timely answer. But since the trial court declined to hold the defendant in default due to its reliance on the aforementioned “typographical error,” the appeals court said the lower court must reconsider the issue and act accordingly. The appeals court did not otherwise address the merits of the underlying dispute, including the insurer’s argument the plaintiff failed to notify it of the accident in a timely manner.