Court Says Mental Grief Can’t Qualify for ‘Bodily Injury’ Payout

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in an opinion filed Wednesday that State Farm does not have to pay for the emotional distress of parents who sought compensation under the uninsured motorist portion of their Tennessee car insurance coverage after their teenage son was struck by a car and killed.

The unanimous ruling backed a state Court of Appeals decision, concluding that mental suffering on its own did not qualify as “bodily injury,” which would be necessary to qualify for an insurance payout.

Case Stemmed from Fatal Crash in 2006

Eighteen-year-old Michael Garrison died at a Chattanooga hospital from injuries sustained after being struck by a vehicle driven by Andy Bickford in June 2006. Both of Michael’s parents and his younger brother came to the scene of the crash, where Michael’s father reported waiting with his critically injured son for more than an hour until emergency crews arrived.

In court testimony, Michael’s mother said that she was “screaming for [him], to tell him I was there. I just was calling to him the whole time … telling him that I was there and to hang on.”

Michael’s father testified that he found his son “barely breathing” and bleeding heavily.

Case Centered on Definition of ‘Bodily Harm’

The Garrisons’ initial claim with their insurer, State Farm, sought compensation from their insurance policy’s uninsured motorist (UM) coverage that had a $100,000 limit for each person and $300,000 limit for each accident. The UM portion of the insurance policy covered “damages for bodily injury an insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle.”

That complaint was filed for “wrongful death” and “negligent infliction of emotional distress”; the same complaint was served to Bickford and his mother, who had lent him the vehicle.

In their claim, the Garrisons alleged that they “suffered grief, fright, shock, depression, loss of sleep and other problems” because of the crash, arriving after it to find their son’s “mangled body” and witnessing his injuries before his death.

The Bickfords and Garrisons eventually reached a $25,000 settlement for both claims of wrongful death and emotional distress. State Farm settled the wrongful death claim for $75,000 through the UM policy but declined to provide compensation for the parents’ emotional distress because the insurance carrier said it did not equate to “bodily harm.”

The Garrisons pursued the emotional distress claim against State Farm, alleging that their “mental injuries” fell under their UM policy’s definition of “bodily injury, sickness or disease,” which would be covered, according to the case. They specifically singled out the “sickness or disease” phrase as warranting coverage.

However, the state Supreme Court disagreed, stating in its decision that the ordinary meaning of bodily injury “connotes a physical injury.” In its decision, the court said it looked to a handful of related decisions by other state supreme courts that had also ruled “bodily injury, sickness or disease, or death,” all regarded the physical sense of that phrase.

About Charles Nguyen
Charles Nguyen is an enterprising journalist who reported for and the Desert Dispatch and was the editor in chief of the Guardian (the twice-weekly newspaper at the University of California, San Diego) before coming to Online Auto Insurance News.

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