A recent decision from the United States District Court for the District of Nevada held that a car insurance policy’s definition of “bodily injury” included emotional injuries and could thus be applied to emotional distress claims.
In Brewington v. State Farm Mutual Auto Insurance Co., the plaintiff filed a complaint against State Farm for breach of contract, arguing that State Farm breached its insurance policy by denying her coverage for her negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. State Farm argued that it did not breach the insurance policy because emotional distress does not qualify as a “bodily injury” and did not arise “in the accident” as required under the policy.
In 2012, the plaintiff and her husband were riding separate motorcycles along a state highway when a third motorcyclist riding in the opposite direction crossed the center line and collided with the plaintiff’s husband, ejecting both riders from their motorcycles. The plaintiff witnessed the collision and called an ambulance, and then rode in the ambulance with her husband, where he died. The plaintiff claimed that as a result of witnessing the accident, she became emotionally distraught, was prescribed medications related to that emotional distress, and underwent treatment.
The plaintiff and her husband were both insured under an automobile and motorcycle policy issued by State Farm. The policy provided coverage for “each person” injured in an accident in an amount up to $250,000, and a total of up to $500,000 for each accident.
After the accident, the plaintiff submitted a wrongful death claim to State Farm on behalf of her husband, for which she received the maximum “each person” coverage amount of $250,000. The plaintiff also submitted a separate claim seeking an additional $250,000 in coverage for her own emotional distress from witnessing the collision. When State Farm denied that claim, the plaintiff filed a breach of contract action against the insurer.
The federal court first considered whether emotional distress claims arising from directly witnessing the death of a loved one fall within the definition of “bodily injury” under the State Farm policy. Bodily injury was defined in the State Farm policy as “bodily injury to a person and sickness, disease, or death that results from it.” The court found that the definition was ambiguous because its definition is circular in that the term defined is used within its own definition (“bodily injury means bodily injury to a person…”). This made the definition inherently ambiguous and wanting of additional information to actually define the term. The court noted that if State Farm had intended the definition to exclude mental distress, it could have defined the term more narrowly.
The court next considered whether emotional distress from directly witnessing the death of a loved one occurs “in the accident” as required by the policy, or is a derivative injury resulting solely from the injuries sustained by the loved one. State Farm argued that the plaintiff’s emotional distress came as a result of her husband’s injuries, and not as a result of the accident. The court disagreed, finding that the plaintiff’s negligent infliction of emotional distress claim was separate from and not derivative of her husband’s injuries. The court also found that the plaintiff’s emotional distress was a direct injury suffered in the accident; the plaintiff was not just affected because her husband was injured, but rather her injury was due to the unique experience of having witnessed the accident.
Ultimately, the court concluded that the term “bodily injury” in the State Farm policy did include emotional injuries, and thus found that State Farm breached the insurance policy by denying coverage to the plaintiff for her separate emotional distress claim.