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Tennessee Supreme Court Rules Emotional Distress Not Covered Under Uninsured Motorist Coverage

The Tennessee Supreme court recently ruled that the emotional distress of Jerry and Martha Garrison following the death of their son Michael was not covered under the uninsured motorist part of their State Farm bodily injury coverage.

The Supreme Court upheld the District Court of Appeals ruling which declared that Tennessee’s mandatory bodily injury coverage was never intended to cover emotional distress due to an accident.

Son Killed in 2006

Michael Garrison was killed in 2006 when he was struck by a car being driven by Andy Bickford. Garrison was riding a mini bike close to his home when he was hit. Jerry and Martha, Michaels parents arrived on the scene shortly after the accident and stood by helplessly as they waited over an hour for the ambulance to arrive.

According to court testimony, Michael was barely breathing and bleeding heavily at the accident scene. His mother Martha was “emotionally overcome” while waiting for help to arrive. Michael later died at a local Chattanooga hospital due to his severe injuries.

The Lawsuit Hinged on Definition of ‘Bodily Harm’

The Garrisons filed a wrongful death lawsuit after the death of their son. They sued both Andy Bickford, the driver of the car as well as his mother Rita Bickford who owned the car, both of whom were uninsured. The Garrisons claimed they “suffered grief, fright, shock, depression, loss of sleep, and other problems,” due to the accident and loss of their son. This lawsuit was eventually settled when the Bickfords agreed to pay a wrongful death claim of $25,000 and an additional $25,000 for emotional distress.

The Garrisons filed a claim with their insurer State Farm under their policy’s uninsured motorist (UM) coverage. Their policy had a $100,000 per person limit and a $300,000 limit per accident. The UM section of the policy offered coverage for “damages for bodily injury an insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle.”

In their claim with State Farm, the Garrison’s stated that they “suffered grief, fright, shock, depression, loss of sleep and other problems” due to the crash and witnessing the injuries prior to their son’s death. State Farm settled the claim for $75,000 but refused to pay out on emotional distress, claiming that the bodily injury section of their uninsured motorist policy does not cover emotional distress.

The Garrisons decided to pursue the case in court. According to Tennessee law all car insurance liability policies must contain uninsured driver coverage which lets accident victims “recover compensatory damages from owners and operators of uninsured motor vehicles because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting from injury, sickness or disease.”

The Garrisons argued that if Tennessee law meant to exclude mental and emotional injuries from bodily injury coverage they would have excluded the “sickness and disease” wording. They argued that the wording could cover a wide range of medical conditions.

The Tennessee Supreme Court disagreed with their argument. They found that the issue had been litigated in numerous state courts and that the language of the Tennessee state law and State Farm’s policy was very clear. They dismissed the references to “sickness and disease” and ruled that the intent of the coverage was only for conditions that arose from bodily injuries.

The court was clear in its opinion, “We conclude that in the context of purely emotional injuries, the phrase ‘bodily injury,’ as defined in the policy before us, is unambiguous. Its ordinary meaning connotes a physical injury. Thus, we hold that, as applied to this case, ‘bodily injury’ in the policy does not include damages for emotional harm alone.”