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Case Note: Davis v. Martinez

Important background to Davis v. Martinez, 2013 Md. App. LEXIS 50, *1[1], is King v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 157 Md. App. 287, 850 A.2d 428 (2004), in which the plaintiff’s underinsured motorist (“UIM”) carrier argued that the trial judge did not abuse her discretion by withholding State Farm’s identity during the trial of the case. The Court of Special Appeals disagreed, reversing and remanding the case for a new trial. It held that “under the facts of the instant case, the [trial] court's ruling, concealing State Farm's identity and role as the party defendant, infringed on the role of the jury and created a significant procedural error that requires reversal.” 157 Md. App. at 303, 850 A.2d at 438. Notably, the Court wrote that “the unsubstantiated belief by State Farm that its disclosure as the defendant would adversely affect the jury's verdict furnishes insufficient justification for withholding from the jury, and from the general public, State Farm's identity as the defendant at a public trial.” 157 Md. App. at 298, 850 A.2d at 435.

The distinguishing fact in Davis is the presence of both a corporeal tortfeasor, Martinez, and State Farm as Defendants. One may be forgiven for reasoning that the King holding also applied to a case involving as defendants an insurance company (as UIM carrier) and an individual. The lawyers who represented State Farm in Davis argued that King was distinguishable because there was no co-defendant whose liability was still at issue who could be prejudiced by the disclosure of the existence of State Farm. Id. at *8. Unpersuaded, the Court wrote: “the distinction drawn by State Farm has no relevance to King’s rationale for disclosing the identity of a UIM carrier to the jury.” Id. It noted that State Farm set forth “no argument as to its privacy, social stigma, or threat of physical harm” and then took it to task for disregarding “our pronouncement in King that the risk of ‘adverse economic consequences’ to a party is ‘insufficient justification’ for hiding the identity of a party at trial.” Id. at *9.

State Farm also urged the Court to affirm the Circuit Court by trying to distinguish Davis from Farley v. Allstate Ins. Co., 355 Md. 34, 733 A.2d 1014 (1999). Farley involved a suit against a UIM carrier for non-payment of benefits. At issue was whether evidence of the amount of UIM benefits should have been permitted at trial. The Court of Appeals ruled that the insurance policy and amount of coverage were inadmissible. In Davis, State Farm argued that, because the tort liability had already been settled in Farley (it was tried only on damages), it was distinguishable. Again, the Court disagreed, writing: “a party’s tort liability is not determinative of whether the presence of a UIM carrier should be disclosed to a jury at trial.” 2013 Md. App. LEXIS 50, at*10. On this issue, the Davis Court also cited Allstate Ins. Co. v. Miller, 315 Md. 182, 191, 553 A.2d 1268 (1989), in which the Court of Appeals wrote “[w]here the insurance carrier is a party to the suit, the existence of insurance obviously cannot be kept from the jury; however the amount of uninsured motorist coverage should not be disclosed, unless the amount is in controversy.” The Davis Court then concluded that its holding was consistent with both the Farley and Miller decisions. 2013 Md. App. LEXIS 50, at*11.

Importantly, the Court agreed with the Davises that “the trial court’s ruling was not evidentiary but one of basic trial procedure” (had it been characterized as evidentiary, the error of allowing State Farm to remain anonymous might have been deemed harmless). Id. This led to the author’s favorite quote from the case: “we agree with the Davises that hiding the existence of State Farm created a ‘charade’ at trial risking the ‘integrity of the jury system.’” 2013 Md. App. LEXIS 50, at*12. Amen.

Lastly, the Court wrote that “[t]he jury was also unaware of the relationship between the defense’s medical expert – who was State Farm’s witness – and State Farm, which might have gone to the expert’s credibility.” 2013 Md. App. LEXIS 50, at*14. This language could be useful in attempting to link hired guns to their repeat insurance company benefactors.

Both Davis and King belong in the “toolbox” of any plaintiff’s attorney trying a UM/UIM case in Maryland.

[1] 65 A.3d 810 (page numbers not yet available).

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