Tennessee’s high court has ruled that two parents’ emotional distress following an automobile accident that took the life of their son is not covered under the uninsured motorist portion of their automobile bodily injury coverage.
The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld a state District Court of Appeals ruling that found that the state’s mandatory bodily injury coverage is not intended to cover any emotional distress that may be associated with an accident.
In June 2006, Michael Garrison was struck by an automobile driven by Andy Bickford as Garrison was riding his minibike near his home. Jerry and Martha Garrison, Michael Garrison’s parents, arrived shortly thereafter at the scene of the accident. There Jerry Garrison waited with his fatally injured son for more than an hour before an ambulance arrived, while Martha Garrison was reportedly emotionally overcome by the scene. Michael Garrison later died at a Chattanooga hospital due to his injuries.
Following the accident, the Garrisons filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Andy Bickford and the owner of the car, Rita Bickford, who were uninsured. Due to the trauma of the accident, the Garrisons “suffered grief, fright, shock, depression, loss of sleep, and other problems,” according to their suit. The Bickfords eventually agreed to personally settle a wrongful death claim for $25,000 and paid the Garrisons an additional $25,000 for their emotional distress.
At the same time, the Garrisons settled a wrongful death claim with their own insurer, State Farm Mutual, for $75,000, under the part of their policy that covers the liability of uninsured drivers. However, State Farm refused to compensate the Garrisons for their emotional distress, stating that it is not covered under the bodily injury portion of their uninsured motorist coverage.
According to previous court decisions, if there is any ambiguity between the type of coverage a state law allows and an insurance policy excludes, the state law prevails.
Under Tennessee state law, every automobile liability policy must include uninsured driver coverage that allows accident victims to “recover compensatory damages from owners and operators of uninsured motor vehicles because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting from injury, sickness or disease.”
State Farm’s policy specifically provides coverage for “bodily injury to a person and sickness, disease, or death that results from it.”
The Garrisons’ took the position that if Tennessee lawmakers wanted to exclude mental injuries from bodily injury coverage they would not have included coverage for “sickness and disease,” which could cover a broad range of conditions. It is a position that a lower trial court agreed with.
The state’s Supreme Court, noting that the issue has been litigated in courts around the country, found that in fact the language of the statute and State Farm’s policy is straightforward. Specifically, the judges stated that regardless of the reference to sickness and disease, the intent of the legislature and State Farm was to provide coverage only for conditions stemming from bodily injuries.
“We conclude that in the context of purely emotional injuries, the phrase ‘bodily injury,’ as defined in the policy before us, is unambiguous,” opined the court. “Its ordinary meaning connotes a physical injury. Thus, we hold that, as applied to this case, ‘bodily injury’ in the policy does not include damages for emotional harm alone.”
The case is Jerry Garrison, et al., v. Rita Bickford, et al., No.E2010-02008-SC-R11¬CV Aug. 23, 2012.