Tennessee Farmers Mutual Finally Held Accountable for Denial of Coverage!

For years the Tennessee appellate courts have been notoriously biased in favor of insurance companies, particularly Tennessee Farmers Mutual.  Finally, however, the Court of Appeals has let a jury take a big stick to their favorite son. 

In Leverette v. Tennessee Farmers Mutual, 2013 Tenn. App. LEXIS 177 (March 4, 2013), a woman was severely injured in a wreck on 12/21/08 with an automobile driven by an unlicensed minor.  The child’s parents’ were insured by Tennessee Farmers (TFM), and it denied coverage and refused to defend the suit on the basis of an exclusion in the insurance policy “for damages caused by a party driving without permission of the owner or a person “in lawful possession” of the vehicle.”  No defense was offered, and the injured woman obtained a $1 million default judgment against the minor driver.  The injured woman and the child’s parents then jointly filed suit against TFM for breach of contract, bad faith, violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), and violation of the Unfair Claims Practices Act. The trial court ruled that, as a matter of law, the minor was entitled to insurance coverage under her parents’ policy at the time of the accident. The rest of the case was submitted to a jury, who found that TFM had violated T.C.A. § 47-18-104 (27) and awarded $1,000,000 in damages.  The trial court trebled the compensatory damages and awarded attorney fees under TCPA.  The jury also awarded compensatory and punitive damages on the “bad faith claim.” 

The Court of Appeals did not sustain the verdict on the bad faith claim under the circumstances, as the plaintiff did not plead a violation of T.C.A. § 56-7-105, but rather relied on a common law tort of bad faith, which the Court said is not recognized in Tennessee in lawsuits between the insured and insurer. 

As to TCPA, however, the jury was asked, “Do you find that the Defendant committed an unfair or deceptive act or practice under the Tennessee Consumer Protection Law that caused damage to Chad and Donna Sanders parents and guardians for Julia Claire Sanders, or Chad and Donna Sanders in their individual capacity?” The jury answered the question in the affirmative. 

Although the Court of Appeals let TFM off the hook for treble damages under TCPA, the Court clearly held that TFM was subject to liability, given the finding by the jury that TFM had committed “an unfair or deceptive act or practice”:

 “We affirm the verdict and judgment holding that TFM had committed unfair or deceptive act or practice under TCPA causing damages to Sanders. The trial court’s award of $1,000,000 in compensatory damages is affirmed.”

Unfortunately the Legislature, in 2011, moved in to protect the insurance industry and amended T.C.A. § 47-18-104 (27) to vest enforcement with the goverment in lieu of the citizens who have been wronged.  The Code section now provides:

“Engaging in any other act or practice which is deceptive to the consumer or to any other person; provided, however, that enforcement of this subdivision (b)(27) is vested exclusively in the office of the attorney general and reporter and the director of the division.”