Semi-truck accidents in Florida can be particularly devastating. Due to the size of the trucks and often the weight of their cargo, the effects on other drivers can be severe and sometimes even deadly. Because the impact of a truck accident is often so significant, trucking companies may not have the insurance necessary to cover all the substantial costs of the accident. Those who have been injured or have lost property may seek underinsurance benefits from their own insurance companies. In these cases, a defendant may argue their court-ordered obligation should be reduced because the plaintiff’s harm has already been addressed in whole or in part. In Ellison v. Willoughby, the appeals court addresses what qualifies as a collateral source in settlements.
Ellison V. Willoughby
Randy Willoughby (Willoughby) was a passenger in a vehicle t-boned by a truck driven by the appellant, Alberta Ellison’s (Mrs. Ellison) husband. Willoughby suffered severe injuries from the accident with the truck. Willoughby sued both Mr. and Mrs. Ellison for negligence. While Mrs. Ellison was not driving the truck at the time of the accident, she was included in the lawsuit because she co-owned the vehicle with Mr. Ellison. In the same case, Willoughby also brought a claim against his uninsured driver insurance company, 21st Century Centennial Insurance Company (21st Century), for uninsured driver benefits and damages for not attempting good-faith claims settlement under Florida law.
Willoughby and 21st Century reached a settlement in which 21st Century agreed to pay Willoughby and counsel $4 million. The agreement specified that about $1.753 million of the total settlement amount was for damages for Willoughby’s personal injury and that that amount did not release any other company from liability for his injuries. After settlement with the insurance company, Willoughby dismissed his claim against 21st Century and dropped his negligence claim against Mr. Ellison, the truck driver.
After Willoughby intentionally dismissed the insurance claim and negligence claim against Mr. Ellison, his claim against Mrs. Ellison remained. About four years after the other claims were dismissed, Mrs. Ellison admitted liability for Willoughby’s injuries and agreed that his past medical expenses were approximately $147,000. After a jury trial, the jury awarded Willoughby $30,101,599 for future medical expenses, lost earnings, and pain and suffering.
After the jury award, Mrs. Ellison brought a motion for a setoff of the 21st Century settlement award. Mrs. Ellison argued that the $3.99 million awarded to Willoughby—the total settlement amount minus uninsured driver insurance policy limits—in the settlement with 21st Century was subject to setoff. Mrs. Ellison argued that this amount could be set off under Florida law because the settlement amount was a collateral source. Further, Mrs. Ellison argued that the setoff was proper because the 21st Century settlement had fully addressed Willoughby’s damages. For Willoughby to receive more money from Mrs. Ellison would constitute a “windfall,” she argued. In response, Willoughby argued that the settlement amount was not subject to setoff because 21st Century and Mrs. Ellison were not connected parties in liability. Willoughby had involved both the insurance company and the Ellisons in the case; however, the claims against the two were separate. Additionally, Willoughby argued that the settlement was not subject to setoff because uninsured driver insurance settlement awards are a collateral source.
Appeals Court Decision
At the beginning of the case, the appeals court established that one of the issues in the case was a matter of first impression, meaning that the issue was critical and had not been handled by the court before. Because the issue was so important, the appeals court only offered analysis and submitted the issue to Florida’s highest court to decide.
While the appeals court preserved the issues for supreme court review, they still analyzed the law and merits of Mrs. Ellison’s claims. Mrs. Ellison argued that the 21st Century settlement amount was subject to setoff because the settlement was a “partial satisfaction” of his damages. However, the appeals court notes that setoffs will only apply when the partial satisfaction of claims reduces the amount owed from co-defendants, or two parties who are jointly liable for the plaintiff’s harm. The appeals court specified that 21st Century and Mrs. Ellison are not co-defendants. Florida law establishes that setoff is only applicable when there are “other tortfeasors who are liable for the same injury as the settling party.” While both 21st Century and the Ellisons were included in the complaint, the appeals court distinguishes that 21st Century, while a settling party, was not responsible for the underlying automobile accident event that initiated the case.
Uninsured Driver Insurance Settlements As Collateral Sources
The appeals court looked to Willoughby’s portion of the settlement on the collateral sources argument. The $1.75 million to Willoughby was for damages for personal injuries or sickness. The appeals court notes that this settlement amount was for compensation for medical expenses and not collateral. On the issue of “windfall,” the court relies on the underlying collateral rule principle “that it is better for the wronged plaintiff to receive a potential windfall than for a tortfeasor to be relieved of responsibility for the wrong, particularly in the case of UM insurance since the insured procured the insurance.” While the appeals court provided analysis on the case, the appeals court submitted the issue of whether settlement payments from uninsured driver insurance to settle a bad-faith claim is subject to setoff or is a collateral source.
Florida Truck Accident Lawyers
Find out more about your legal rights as a truck accident victim by talking to a Florida personal injury attorney. They can bring you up to speed on truck accident insurance claims and lawsuits and provide guidance on how to proceed. At Koberlein Law Offices, our experienced truck accident attorneys are ready to help you get the maximum compensation for the harm that you suffered. We will take the time to understand your situation, advise you about your options, and fight on your behalf to get you financial relief and justice. To get in touch with a Koberlein Law Offices attorney, call us toll-free at 877.556.2889 or contact us online.