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Tennessee Supreme Court Rejects Emotional Distress Claim Against Uninsured Motorist Policy – Garrison v. Bickford

When we purchase uninsured or underinsured (UM/UIM) motorist coverage, we expect our insurance company will be there in the event we are in an accident with a motorist who does not have car insurance or whose policy limits are not sufficient enough to cover the damages suffered.

However, personal injury lawyers understand recovering from your own insurance policy is often no easier than recovering damages from the at-fault driver’s insurance policy. When you make a claim, you and your insurance company are in adversarial roles. And, unfortunately, that frequently means you cannot count on being treated fairly without the help of an experienced law firm.

Tennessee law requires motorists carry a minimum of $25,000 personal injury coverage per person ($50,000 per accident) and $15,000 for property damage per accident. Unfortunately, even when a motorist carries legal minimums, this coverage is often inadequate in the event of an accident. Think of the cost of one new vehicle and compare that to the $15,000 in total coverage, and you begin to see our state minimums are woefully outdated.

That makes UM/UIM coverage even more important. And motorists should purchase as much coverage as they can reasonably afford. Frequently $250,000 in coverage is available for as little as $75 every six months. This coverage will be a critical resource in the event that you or a family member is involved in a serious or fatal accident.

Whether you have an experienced attorney in the aftermath of such an accident, and how a lawsuit is filed, will also have an impact on the outcome. In August, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in Garrison v. Bickford that the “bodily injury” clause of a motorist’s UM coverage did not include “emotional distress.”

In this case, Jerry and Martha Garrison sued the driver for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress after their son was struck and killed while riding a minibike near his home. They also served the lawsuit on State Farm, their own insurance company, under their uninsured motorist policy.

The trial court determined “bodily injury” included mental injuries. However, that decision was reversed by an appeals court and upheld by the state Supreme Court, which found “bodily injury” in this case, and under this policy, did not include “emotional harm.” The court also found the policy’s definition of “bodily injury” did not conflict with the state’s uninsured motorist statute.

The at-fault driver’s insurer paid $25,000 for wrongful death and $25,000 for emotional distress. The parent’s insurer paid $75,000 for wrongful death but refused to pay the emotional distress claim, taking the case all the way to the state’s high court, where it ultimately prevailed.

You’ll note the couple’s UM coverage paid more than the at-fault driver’s coverage. But it certainly wasn’t paid voluntarily by the couple’s insurer. Instead the family had to fight for it in the midst of dealing with this terrible tragedy.

If you are involved in a Tennessee traffic accident, contact Hartsoe Law Firm, P.C. for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights at (865) 524-5657.

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