Florida law is unique in the way it handles claims against underinsured motorist (UM) insurance carriers; while most states use an arbitration system, Florida allows such cases to be litigated in a trial court. However, this can raise some unique issues. For example, if the insured has claims against both the underinsured driver and their own UM insurance carrier, should these claims be heard in the same court case?
That’s the issue at the heart of Choi v. Auto-Owners Insurance Company and Beutler. In September 2014, Jessica Choi was in a car accident caused by Haley Beutler. Beutler was both underinsured and intoxicated at the time of the accident. However, Choi had UM benefits through her policy with Auto-Owners. Choi sought damages from both Beutler and Auto-Owners in the same suit; her claims against Beutler were based on the latter’s negligence and intoxication, while Choi sought relief from Auto-Owners for her damages in excess of those covered by Beutler’s auto insurance policy.
Auto-Owners moved to sever the claim against it from the claims against Beutler, arguing that a jury would be prejudiced after hearing about Choi’s insurance coverage and Beutler’s intoxication; the trial court granted this motion. Choi appealed the ruling, seeking certiorari review by the appellate court.
In their review, the Second District Court of Appeals sided with Choi, concluding that the trial court was in error in severing the claims. The appellate court asserted that Choi’s claims against both Beutler and Auto-Owners arose out of the same cause of action; severance could result in inconsistent outcomes in the two separate cases and was thus inappropriate.
Furthermore, the Second District noted that Auto Owners’ concerns about potential juror prejudice would not be avoided by separating the claims; Choi’s insurance coverage and Beutler’s intoxication were central to Choi’s case against Auto-Owners as well, and the jury would hear about both facts regardless.
In short, a Floridian with UM coverage can sue their insurance carrier alongside the underinsured driver as the claims would be “inextricably interwoven.” Consulting with an experienced attorney such as the lawyer Tampa FL locals trust is highly advised.
Thanks to authors at Mckinney Law Group for their insight into Auto Accident Law and Insurance.