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Georgia Supreme Court Rejects Accident Victim’s Efforts to Collect on Judgment

Winning a personal injury judgment is not always the end of the matter. If a defendant or his insurance company refuses to pay up, a victim may face years of additional court proceedings. In some cases, a victim may even have to fight his or her own insurance company, as a recent Georgia Supreme Court decision illustrates.

Travelers Home & Marine Insurance Company v. Castellanos

A man was seriously injured in a 2009 automobile accident. The other driver was at fault. The victim filed a personal injury lawsuit in Georgia state court. The defendant’s insurance company defended him at trial. Indeed, the defendant never appeared in the case or made any effort to defend himself. Not surprisingly, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the victim and awarded him approximately $3,700 in compensatory damages and another $3,200 in punitive damages.

The victim demanded the defendant’s insurer pay the award. The insurer refused, citing the defendant’s “lack of cooperation” in the trial. The insurer offered to settle for less than the jury’s verdict, arguing its policy with the defendant did not cover punitive damages.

The victim refused to settle and subsequently sought uninsured motorist benefits from his own insurance company, Travelers. Travelers refused, and the victim filed a new lawsuit. The trial court granted summary judgment to Travelers. In 2014, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the victim. The Georgia Supreme Court then agreed to hear Travelers’ appeal.

The legal issue on appeal dealt with the applicable burden of proof. Under the insurance policy and Georgia law, the original defendant’s vehicle is considered “uninsured” only if his insurer “legally denied” coverage. In other words, if the defendant’s insurer did not legally deny coverage, it is technically not “uninsured,” and Travelers is not liable to the victim.

But the question then becomes who is responsible for proving the first insurer “legally denied” coverage? The Court of Appeals was divided on this question. The majority held the trial court should not have required the victim to prove there was a legal denial of coverage; the burden was on Travelers to justify its denial of coverage. The dissent held just the opposite; the burden should be on the victim to prove there was a legal denial of coverage.

The Supreme Court sided with the dissenters. In a unanimous opinion, the justices said since the victim claimed he was entitled to uninsured motorist benefits, the burden was on him to prove the denial of coverage by the original defendant’s insurer “was legally sustainable.” This means the victim must present specific evidence the insurer “reasonably requested” the defendant’s cooperation in the original litigation and that the defendant “willfully and intentionally” refused such requests.

Applying this burden of proof, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court’s original decision granting summary judgment to Travelers was correct. While the Court expressed its sympathy to the victim—who has spent years trying to collect on his judgment—the justices nonetheless found he failed to meet his burden of proof. Indeed, the Court said the victim failed to produce any evidence whatsoever proving the defendant failed to cooperate with his insurer. In a footnote, the Court said what evidence was available suggested the defendant had relocated to Mexico and never received notice of the initial lawsuit.