Written by: Phillip M. LeMere
The issue of whether to introduce a UM/UIM carrier’s role as a defendant at trial has been the subject of debate. In 2014, the Supreme Court of Mississippi provided clarification on the subject in the case of Heflin v. Merrill, seemingly drawing the line as to the relevance of and prejudicial effects the disclosure of UM/UIM coverage may have on a jury’s determination of damages. 154 So. 3d 857 (Miss. 2014). Defense attorneys in Mississippi should utilize this ruling in motions in limine to exclude the introduction of UM/UIM coverage at trial.
Affirming the Circuit Court of Harrison County’s judgment entered by the late great John C. Garguilo (who would go on to become a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Southern District of Mississippi), the Supreme Court of Mississippi held that the role of an insured’s UM/UIM motorist insurer was irrelevant and that the proponent of evidence regarding the UM/UIM motorist carrier’s role in litigation over policy benefits must demonstrate its relevance pursuant to Rule 403 of the Mississippi Rules of Evidence. Id. at 860-64. M.R.E. Rule 403.
The Insured Plaintiff in this case was rear-ended by the underinsured motorist Defendant. Id. at 860. Thereafter, the Plaintiff sued the Defendant and Nationwide, her underinsured motorist carrier. Id. Before trial, Nationwide admitted liability and offered to stipulate in writing that the Plaintiff was: 1) insured under her policy with Nationwide; and 2) that Nationwide would be responsible for payment of any final judgment in excess of the underinsured motorist Defendant’s liability coverage. Id. Nationwide then filed a motion in limine to exclude any evidence or references whatsoever to Nationwide’s role in the trial (and that the Plaintiff had underinsured motorist coverage). The trial court granted the motion, finding “[w]hether or not UM coverage exists is not relevant…[and] the existence of Nationwide Insurance Company to the jury would potentially prejudice that jury as to a determination of damages.” Id. at 861.
The jury ultimately awarded the Plaintiff an amount well below the underinsured motor Defendant’s policy limits, and the Plaintiff filed a motion for a new trial or additur. Id. However, the trial court denied those motions. Id.
On appeal, the Plaintiff argued that the trial court erred when it did not disclose Nationwide’s role in the trial. Id. The Court of Appeals of Mississippi agreed with the trial court, finding that “admitting such evidence could only serve to possibly inflate or deflate a verdict or confuse the jury.” Id. A case of first impression in Mississippi, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and affirmed the trial court’s ruling. Id. The Supreme Court reasoned that admission of Nationwide’s role as UM/UIM carrier would have risked a mistrial by allowing the Plaintiff to use insurance to prove the Defendant’s negligence where the only issue was the amount of the Plaintiff’s damages. Id. at 861. In short, where liability is clear in multiple-defendant cases (including a UM/UIM defendant) and the only issues is damages, a UM/UIM insurer’s identity would prejudicially impact a jury’s “evaluation of the extent of [a] plaintiff’s injuries.” Id.
It is worth noting that the Heflin ruling is grounded in the Mississippi Rules of Evidence. For example, Rule 411 states that “[e]vidence that a person was or was not insured against liability is not admissible upon the issue whether he acted negligently or otherwise wrongfully.” M.R.E. Rule 411. Further, it is also not an unprecedented ruling in Mississippi. In fact, it was likely inevitable as a quasi-sister case to a previous holding from the Supreme Court of Mississippi. See Capital City Ins. Co. v. G.B. “Boots” Smith Corp., 889 So.2d 505, 510 (Miss. 2004) (holding that it is “well established in this state that evidence of insurance or lack thereof may not be presented at a trial to show who would have to pay the judgment”).
Defense attorneys in UM/UIM cases should keep the Heflin ruling in mind when filing a motion in limine or an objection at trial. There are no other cases in Mississippi that have made this area of the law more nuanced or challenging the effect of Heflin. However, if an attorney fails to file a motion in limine to exclude a UM/UIM carrier’s role at trial, that attorney likely just waived an evidentiary right his or her client was otherwise entitled to.