EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Am I Right Or Am I Right?: Supreme Court of West Virginia Finds Evidence of Insurance Inadmissible to Prove Handling of Claim

Similar to its federal counterpartWest Virginia Rule of Evidence 411 provides that

Evidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether the person acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully. This rule does not require the exclusion of evidence of insurance against liability when offered for another purpose, such as proof of agency, ownership, or control, if controverted, or bias or prejudice of a witness.

If you're looking for a pretty good case explaining the goals of Rule  411 and its application, you need look no further than the recent opinion of the Supreme Court of West Virginia in Toothman v. Jones, 2012 WL 5687865 (W.Va. 2012).

The action in Toothman was

based upon injuries allegedly suffered by the Petitioner, Bonnie Toothman, in an automobile accident occurring on June 7, 2006, in which the Respondent's car struck the Petitioner's car. Petitioners Mr. and Mrs. Toothman thereafter filed a civil action, alleging that Petitioner Mrs. Toothman had suffered cervical strain and other medical injuries due to the accident. A trial was conducted on January 11, 2011, and the jury returned a verdict awarding special damages of $5,972.35, an amount $600.00 less than the medical expenses submitted by the Petitioners. The jury did not award any general damages. Subsequent to the Petitioners' request for a new trial, the lower court denied the new trial but ordered an additur of $2,000.00 for past pain and suffering.

The petitioners thereafter appealed the denial of their motion for a new trial, claiming, inter alia, that the trial court erred in preventing reference to the Respondent's insurance coverage. Specifically, they asserted

that they sought to raise the issue of insurance to explain that the insurance company was handling the claim on behalf of the Respondent. The Petitioners also contend[ed] that the gaps in Petitioner Mrs. Toothman's medical treatment subsequent to the accident could have been explained more fully to the jury if she had been permitted to explain that funding through the Respondent's insurance company had become an issue.

In addressing these arguments, the Supreme Court of West Virginia cited its prior opinion in Reed v. Wimmer, 465 S.E.2d 199 (W.Va. 1995), for the proposition that

The prohibition in Rule  411 is based on the assumption that jurors who are informed about the insurance status of a party may find that party liable only because the liability will be cost-free to the party, or that jurors will increase the amount of damages in that only an insurance company will be affected adversely. By the adoption of this exclusionary language, Rule  4111 forbids two inferences. First, the Rule does not permit the trier of fact to infer that an insured person is more likely than an uninsured person to be careless. Second, Rule  4111 rejects the inference that the foresight to take out insurance is indicative of a responsible attitude, making negligence less likely. Although both the inferences and their probative force are highly questionable, under the West Virginia Rules of Evidence, the doctrine is clear, and compliance with Rule  411 and the other rules discussed in this opinion is not a matter of judicial discretion.

Applying this reasoning, the court then concluded that

While not all uses of evidence regarding the existence of insurance are excluded by Rule  411, a decision regarding the appropriate circumstances for the potential introduction of insurance evidence must be made by the trial court and properly lies within the trial court's discretion. As with introduction of evidence generally, the trial judge must engage in an evaluation of the evidence offered and ultimately determine whether the evidence is relevant and whether its probative value is outweighed by its prejudicial effect. See W. Va. R. Evid. 403. In the present case, the Petitioners presented the trial court with an insufficient basis for permitting the introduction of evidence of the existence of the Respondent's insurance. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to permit introduction of evidence regarding insurance and in denying the Petitioners' motion for a new trial. As the trial court aptly observed, there is "no reason to change the longstanding evidentiary rule prohibiting the introduction of a defendant's insurance coverage into evidence at trial...." 



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