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IN UM CASE, GEORGIA SUPREME COURT PUTS BURDEN ON THE INSURED/PLAINTIFF TO PROVE THE AT-FAULT DRIVER WAS AN UNINSURED MOTORIST

Posted by H. Lee Pruett

The Georgia Supreme Court recently clarified that it is the insured/plaintiff, not the UM carrier, who has the burden of proof as to whether the at-fault driver was in fact an uninsured motorist under the plaintiff’s UM policy. In Travelers Home & Marine Ins. Co. v. Castellanos, Case No. S14G1878, 2015 Ga. LEXIS 350 (Ga. S. Ct., June 1, 2015), the defendant did not appear at trial in the underlying case. After the plaintiff obtained a judgment, the defendant’s liability carrier, United Auto, denied coverage to the defendant based on a failure to cooperate in the defense. The plaintiff then sought payment from Travelers, his UM carrier, and eventually filed suit against Travelers for bad faith refusal to pay a covered loss. Travelers raised the defense that United Auto did not “legally deny” the underlying defendant’s liability coverage and, therefore, the defendant was not an “uninsured motorist” under the policy.

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment. The trial court granted summary judgment to Travelers, holding the plaintiff had failed to present evidence of a legal denial of coverage by United Auto. On appeal, the Georgia Court of Appeals held the trial court had improperly shifted the burden to the plaintiff to produce evidence that would rebut Travelers’ affirmative defense. The Georgia Supreme Court, in turn, reversed the Court of Appeals and upheld the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to the UM carrier.

The Court held that the plaintiff has the burden of proof to show (1) the existence of the UM policy, and (2) that the at-fault driver was an uninsured motorist. Travelers’ policy defined “uninsured motor vehicle” to include a vehicle which is insured but the insurer “legally denies coverage.” Thus, the plaintiff had the burden to show United Auto’s denial of coverage was “legally sustainable.” To do that, the plaintiff had to establish the same elements an insurer needs to justify a denial of coverage based on non-cooperation: (1) the insurer made a reasonable request for cooperation in defending the case, (2) the insured willfully failed to cooperate, and (3) the failure to cooperate prejudiced the defense.

The Court first noted that the uninsured motorist statutes are remedial and must be broadly construed to provide coverage where possible. The Court also acknowledged the difficulty a plaintiff might have in procuring evidence where he is “a stranger to the relationship between the tortfeasor and its insurer.” The solution-and liability insurers should take note-is for the plaintiff to obtain discovery “from the insurer regarding its efforts to contact its insured and its lack of success in securing cooperation.” Although the Court found a presumption of prejudice resulted from the underlying defendant’s absence from trial, the Court held that the plaintiff had failed to show that the liability insurer had reasonably requested the defendant’s cooperation or that the defendant willfully refused to cooperate. Other than statements in the pleadings, the only evidence presented was an unauthenticated letter from United Auto to its insured stating that it was denying coverage because of his non-cooperation. The Court held this was simply not enough because it said nothing about United Auto’s efforts to contact its insured. The plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proof to show that United Auto had legally denied coverage, and the UM carrier was entitled to summary judgment.