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State Farm hit with $1M verdict in underinsured motorist suit

A Montgomery County jury has awarded more than $1 million in damages to a Walkersville woman after concluding that State Farm Insurance Cos. breached its policy by failing to provide underinsured motorist coverage after she was seriously injured in a January 2007 car crash.

The other driver’s liability insurance hit its maximum at $25,000, which barely covered Christine Houser’s continuing medical expenses and lost wages, said her attorney, Michael J. Winkelman.

Houser sued State Farm after the company rejected her documented need for additional money under the underinsured motorist clause of her policy, Winkelman said.

The jury’s award of $1,058,746.16 included $1 million for Houser’s pain and suffering, $43,308.51 in medical expenses and $15,437.65 in lost wages. The award will be reduced to $738,746.16 due to Maryland’s statutory cap on non-economic damages, said Winkelman, of McCarthy & Winkelman LLP in Lanham.

The verdict, though substantial, will send no cautionary message to insurance companies about the potential pitfalls of rejecting a clients’ claim for uninsured motorist coverage, he added.

Insurers “have very little downside risk in Maryland,” Winkelman said.

Insurance companies benefit not only from the state’s cap on damages but also the reluctance of many juries to return large awards, the lack of a strong bad-faith statute to penalize companies and many appellate opinions that have struck down large and punitive damages awards, Winkelman said.

The Montgomery County jury “simply provided the protection Ms. Houser paid for with State Farm for over 20 years,” he added.

Houser, who is in her early 40s., was driving north on Interstate 270 in Clarksburg on Jan. 29, 2007, when the other motorist made a sudden left turn in front of her, leading to the collision that has left her with non-operable back pain.

“She has had continuous treatment since the date of the accident and will into the future,” Winkelman said.

The other driver’s $25,000 in liability coverage was exhausted in June 2010.

Houser, who works for the Montgomery County Board of Education, then filed a claim with State Farm for underinsured motorist coverage and presented evidence that she still had medical expenses and uncompensated lost wages, Winkelman said.

State Farm denied the claim, and Houser filed suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court on March 2, 2012. The jury returned its verdict on Aug. 22 after a two-day trial and about 90 minutes of deliberation, Winkelman said.

State Farm attorney Lawrence A. Richardson Jr. had no comment on the verdict.

CHRISTINE HOUSER V. STATE FARM INSURANCE COS.

Court:

Montgomery County Circuit Court

Case No.:

360045V

Judge:

David A. Boynton

Outcome:

$1,058,746.16, capped at $738,746.16

Dates:

Event: Denial of coverage: June 2010

Suit filed: March 2, 2012

Trial: Aug. 21-22, 2013

Jury verdict: Aug. 22, 2013

Plaintiff’s Attorney:

Michael J. Winkelman of McCarthy & Winkelman LLP in Lanham.

Defendant’s Attorney:

Neil Dachis of Timothy S. Smith & Associates in Greenbelt.

Count:

Breach of insurance contract (underinsured motorist coverage)