Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Derousse v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company

Opinion handed down December 8, 2009[1]
Link to Mo. Sup. Ct. Opinion

The Supreme Court of Missouri held that State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company’s (hereinafter “Insurer”) uninsured motorist coverage policy was too narrow and, therefore, that the policy’s coverage was governed by Missouri Revised Statute section 379.203.1, which requires the insurer to provide compensation for purely emotional damages. [2] Consequently, the trial court’s summary judgment order on behalf of the insurer was improper, and the case was remanded. [3]

I. Facts and Holding

A body was ejected from an uninsured motorist’s vehicle as the result of a crash and struck Derousse’s (hereinafter “Claimant”) vehicle. [4] Although not physically injured, Claimant suffered nightmares, migraines, nausea, diarrhea, anxiety, headaches, vomiting and backaches. [5] She sought treatment from three therapists and sought coverage for her emotional distress damages from her insurance company. [6] Insurer denied her claim for emotional distress damages under her insurance policy, claiming the policy did not provide uninsured motorist coverage for non-bodily injuries. [7] The language in the policy provided coverage for “damages for bodily injury” and defined “bodily injury” as “injury to a person and sickness, disease or death which results from it.” [8] Claimant sued Insurer for coverage, and Insurer moved for summary judgment. [9] The trial court determined that Claimant had conceded she suffered no physical injury and that her uninsured motorist coverage for “bodily injury” did not include “injuries solely of an emotional nature.” [10] Summary judgment was granted in the Insurer’s favor, and Claimant appealed arguing that summary judgment was in error because “(1) she sustained injuries covered by her policy; (2) her policy is ambiguous as to its coverage for emotional distress; and (3) her policy violates Missouri law.” [11]

II. Standard of Review

Appellate review of summary judgment is de novo and is appropriate when the moving party has demonstrated that there are no material facts in dispute and that she is entitled to a right to judgment as a matter of law. [12] The court reviews the record in a light most favorable to the party against whom summary judgment has been entered. [13]

The court’s review of insurance policy language is a question of law requiring de novo review. [14] Unambiguous polices will be enforced so long as they are not contrary to public policy. [15]

III. Legal Background

Missouri Revised Statute section 379.203.1 provides, in part, that automobile insurance covering liability must compensate for damages when the claimant would be entitled to damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles because of “bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting therefrom.” [16] Insurer conceded that its policy covering “bodily injury,” meaning “injury to a person and sickness, disease or death which results from it,” was narrower than Missouri Revised Statute section 379.203.1. [17] The court found that, because an insurance policy that contravenes a statute or public policy requiring coverage cannot be enforced, the coverage language of section 379.203.1 must control Claimant’s case because its dictates are broader than the Insurer’s policy language. [18]

The court began by analyzing the language of section 379.203.1 to determine whether compensating the claimant for purely emotional damages is mandated under the statute. [19] The court says the starting off point is that all words and phrases in a statute are assigned their plain and ordinary meaning. [20] A statute is ambiguous when its plain language does not answer the current dispute as to its meaning. [21] The court found that section 379.203.1 is ambiguous as to whether “bodily” modifies only the word “injury” or also “sickness or disease.” [22] If “bodily” does only modify “injury,” then it is also possible that purely emotional injuries may be covered by the “sickness or disease” language. [23] To resolve this ambiguity, the court says it should first apply rules of statutory construction and then resolve ambiguities by determining the intent of the legislature and giving it effect whenever possible. [24] Legislative intent is based on the statute’s plain language, and if the statutory language is not expressly defined, it is given its plain and ordinary meaning as found in the dictionary. [25]

Applying these principles, the court found that that the term “bodily” only modifies “injury” because a comma separates the phrase “bodily injury” from the words that follow. [26] Therefore, the statute requires uninsured motorist coverage for a series of harms: (1) bodily injury, (2) sickness, (3) or disease. [27] The court then considered the definitions of “sickness” and “disease” and concluded that purely emotional damages are included within the definition of both. [28]

Therefore, because the Claimant pleaded claims that are included within the mandated uninsured motorist coverage found in section 379.203.1, summary judgment was inappropriately granted, and thus the court reversed the judgment of the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings. [29]

IV. Commentary

This case provides an interesting insight into how we as a society are willing to treat purely emotional injuries. The court here interpreted concededly ambiguous language in Missouri Revised Statute section 379.203.1 to mandate that all liability insurance coverage issued to Missouri drivers covers purely emotional damages when an incident occurs with an uninsured vehicle. In a concurring opinion, Judge Wolff agrees with the court’s resolution of the statutory interpretation but he questions the public policy implications. [30] Judge Wolff wonders whether it is wise to encourage the victim to keep traumatic memories fresh in order to aid litigation in order to be compensated. [31] Accordingly, he suggests that the legislature consider the issue. [32] Although this is an interesting thought and Judge Wolff is absolutely correct that this is the legislature’s domain, the premise of the question sheds some light on society’s changing views on emotional damages generally. Judge Wolff writes that “[a] person heals from [emotional injury] by the mind’s marvelous ability to forget. When the memory of an awful event fades, the person gets better.” [33] One wonders, however, how far such policies could go? Are damages for emotional distress in tort actions also against public policy because of the potential for delay in “healing?” Do memories just fade as Judge Wolff suggests? Who decides when memories will just fade or whether one is in need of therapy and, presumably, justified in demanding compensation for such therapy? Judge Wolff poses an interesting and complex question with great policy implications and, as he suggests, it is a question that needs to be fully addressed by the legislature.

-Brad Dixon

[1] No. 90093 (Mo. Dec. 8, 2009). The West reporter citation is Derousse v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 298 S.W.3d 891 (Mo. banc 2009).
[2] Id. at 894-97.
[3] Id. at 895.
[4] Id. at 893.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] Id. (citing ITT Commercial Fin. Corp. v. Mid-Am Marine Supply Corp., 854 S.W.2d 371, 376 (Mo. banc 1993)).
[13] Id. at 893-94.
[14] Id. at 894. (citing Jones v. Mid-Century Ins. Co., 287 S.W.3d 687, 690 (Mo. banc 2009)).
[15] Id. (citing Krombach v. Mayflower Ins. Co. Ltd., 827 S.W.2d 208, 210 (Mo. banc 1992)).
[16] Id. at 894; Mo. Rev. Stat. § 379.203.1 (2002).
[17] Derousse, 298 S.W.3d at 894.
[18] Id. at 895 (citing Rodriquez v. Gen. Acc. Ins. Co. of Am., 808 S.W.3d 379, 382 (Mo. banc 1991) (stating that policy language contravening a statute is unenforceable)); Ragsdale v. Armstrong, 916 S.W.2d 783, 785 (Mo. banc 1996) (Benton, J., concurring) (stating that statutory provisions enter into and form a part of a policy to which they are applicable)).
[19] Id. at 895.
[20] Id. (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 1.090 (2002)).
[21] Id. (citing Holtcamp v. State, 259 S.W.3d 537, 539 (Mo. banc 2008)).
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id. (citing Soto v. State, 226 S.W.3d 164, 166 (Mo. banc 2007)).
[25] Id. (citing State v. Brookside Nursing Ctr., Inc., 50 S.W.3d 273, 276 (Mo. banc 2001)).
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Id. at 895. “Sickness” is defined as “the condition of being ill . . . a disordered, weakened, or unsound condition . . . a form of disease.” “Disease” is defined as “an impairment of the normal state of the living animal . . . sickness, illness . . . cause of discomfort or harm.” Websters Third New International Dictionary (1993, Unabridged).
[29] Id.
[30] Id. at 896 (Wolff, J., concurring).
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id.