Monday, October 24, 2016

Barickman v. Mercury Cas. Co. (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 15, 2016)

Insured runs a red light while drunk and hits two pedestrians.  He's insured for the statutory minimum under California law (sadly), so the insurance company -- Mercury -- wisely offers the policy limit of $15,000 each to the pedestrians, who accept it.

Meanwhile, the Insured's criminal case, the Insured gets sentenced to three years in prison, and also is ordered to pay $165,000 in restitution.

In a normal world, that'd be the end of it.

But, of course, we live in no such world.

Mercury's willing to pay the policy limits, and the victims are willing to accept this, but they want to make clear that the $15,000 insurance payments will not reduce or offset the court-ordered $165,000 restitution award.  Of course, the insured wants something different, but, as you know, the insured is not the one who decides whether or not to settle.  Nonetheless, the case dickers along, with the victims forwarding along a proposed settlement agreement that includes the line "This does not include court-ordered restitution" and Mercury responding that such a line is unnecessary and superfluous, but still fully willing to forward on the full policy limits for each victim.

So the victims file suit, with both sides still pushing for their version of the agreement.  And then, at some point, the victims say:  "Screw it."  And enter into a stipulated judgment with the insured not for the $15,000 policy limits, but rather $3 million.  Alongside, of course, and assignment of bad faith claims against Mercury.  Which the victims then promptly sue.

The trial court gives the victims the full $3 million stipulated judgment, plus ten percent interest per year.  The Court of Appeal affirms.

You can view this case one of two ways.  Ways which are not necessarily inconsistent with each other.

On the one hand, you can be horrified that a trivial dispute over settlement language in a $15,000 case gets the insurance company on the hook for $3 million.  What an incredibly bad series of decisions by the insurance company.  If they'd have just signed the agreement, or just written the check, they'd be totally off the hook.  But, no, that wasn't their call.  So now they're paying millions upon millions of dollars.  Bad choices.  Really bad.

On the other hand, you've now got two people who seem to receive a manifest windfall -- at least as compared to similarly-situated victims -- as a result of a penny-ante dispute.  There was an incredibly tiny fight over whether a $15,000 payment will be an offset.  So now they get $3 million?!  That is a huge payment for a fairly insignificant mistake.  You understand how, as a matter of doctrine, such a result comes about.  But still.  At a minimum, it seems super unfair to the tons of other drunk driver victims who have to live with $15,000 to have two of 'em get a multi-million dollar windfall in nearly identical circumstances.

Yet there you have it.

So, okay, an insurance company screws up, and ends up paying for it.  And two people who would otherwise receive $15,000 get millions of dollars instead.

But, at some level, this still sounds something more akin to winning a lottery than any straightforward attempt at systemic justice, no?