MUST READ: A Divided Middle Section Considers Extracontractual Liability Following Contested Coverage Denial

WENDY LEVERETTE, ET AL. v. TENNESSEE FARMERS MUTUAL INSURANCE COMPANY
Court: TN Court of Appeals

Attorneys:

Michael Ross Campbell, Lauren Michelle Rutherford, Chattanooga, Tennessee; Patrick Arnold Flynn, Seth Michael Lasater, Columbia, Tennessee, for the appellant, Tennessee Farmers Mutual Insurance Company.

Richard Thomas Matthews, Columbia, Tennessee, for the appellee, Wendy Leverette, et al.

Judge: COTTRELL

A woman who was severely injured in a collision with an automobile driven by an unlicensed minor filed suit against the minor. The minor’s parents’ insurance company 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 party obtained a $1 million default judgment against the minor driver. The injured party and the minor’s parents then jointly filed suit against the insurance company, alleging that the insurance company was liable for breach of contract, bad faith, violation of the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, and violation of the Unfair Claims Practices Act based upon its denial of coverage. 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 remainder of the case was tried, and the plaintiffs were awarded compensatory and punitive damages on the bad faith claim. The jury also found the insurance company had violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, and the trial court trebled the compensatory damages and awarded attorney fees under the Act. The insurance company has raised a number of issues in this appeal, inter alia, the grant of partial summary judgment to the plaintiffs on the question of coverage; the finding of liability for bad faith, the liability and enhanced penalty under the TCPA, and the requirement that plaintiffs should make an election between the punitive damages and the enhanced damages. We affirm the breach of contract holding, including the conclusion that the policy terms provided coverage. We reverse and vacate the holding of liability for bad faith, including the award of punitive damages thereunder, since the statutory cause of action was not plead. We also reverse the award of treble damages under the TCPA, but affirm the finding of a violation of the Act. We affirm as modified the award of attorneys’ fees.

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