In addition to serious injury and property damage, a Florida car accident can raise a number of complex legal issues regarding fault and liability. As the Fourth District Court of Appeal’s decision in Goheagan v. American Vehicle Insurance Company makes clear, these issues can become even more complicated when insurance companies get involved.

The case stemmed from a high-speed car accident in which John Perkins’ vehicle rear-ended a car driven by Molly Swaby, who was severely injured and remained in a coma until she died three months later. Perkins reported the accident to his insurer, American Vehicle Insurance Company, two days after it occurred. AVIC claims adjuster Lee Ann Grieser told Perkins the company would attempt to settle the matter for $10,000 – the maximum amount for which Perkins was insured.

Grieser was unable, however, to get in contact with Swaby’s mother, Olive Goheagan, who evaded Grieser during a series of phone calls. Grieser later learned that Goheagan had filed a wrongful death suit against Perkins. Goheagan later rejected AVIC’s offer to settle the matter for $10,000.

Following trial in the wrongful death suit, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Goheagan, awarding her nearly $2.9 million in damages and another $20,000 in costs. Goheagan then sued AVIC, claiming that the company breached its duty of good faith owed to Perkins by failing to simply issue Swaby a check for $10,000. A trial court granted AVIC’s motion for summary judgment, however, ruling that it would have been futile for the company to issue a check to Swaby because she was in a coma and never recovered. Goheagan, meanwhile, was not authorized to receive payment on Swaby’s behalf, according to the court.

On appeal, the Fourth District upheld the lower court’s ruling, but based on different reasoning. “When an insurer is handling claims against its insured, it has a duty to use the same degree of care and diligence as a person of ordinary care and prudence should exercise in the management of his own business,” the Court explained, citing the state Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Perera v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty. That includes a duty to “settle the claim if possible, where a reasonably prudent person . . . would do so,” according to the Court.

Noting that Grieser tried to contact Goheagan a number of times, the Court found that this effort could not be considered bad faith, even though AVIC never sent a written settlement offer. “The focal point of a bad faith case is that the insurer puts its own interests ahead of the interests of its insured,” the Court said. Here, there was simply no evidence showing that AVIC put its interests ahead of Perkins’ and, as a result, the lower court properly decided that the matter should not go to a jury.

The best way to deal with an insurance bad faith claim in Florida is to avoid it altogether. By enlisting the services of an experienced and competent attorney right after your accident, you could level the playing field and avoid unfair and unscrupulous insurance company tactics. The South Florida insurance attorneys at Anidjar & Levine, have vast experience representing clients in car accident cases and insurance disputes throughout the area, including in Ft. Lauderdale, Pompano Beach and Hialeah.

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