We have tried to suggest that when getting separated or divorced, the world does not seek your opinion of the person you once longed to have and to hold. But today, almost all of us come equipped with an 18 square inch transmitter which allows us to share with the world our darkest thoughts on almost any topic. Think. Type. Send. Or, more accurately Don’t think. Type. Send. A lot of “visitors” to the US Capitol on January 6, 2020 are learning the hard way that your phone is not always your friend.
A recent case from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania illustrates the point in more humble ways. Jamiylah Burns and Blakely Cooper were married. It didn’t work out, such that in August 2014, Cooper filed for divorce. A few months later Burns was on a trip to Washington DC when her car was ransacked, and some jewelry and other personal items stolen. The car was insured for theft of this kind, so Burns made a claim to Erie Insurance. Both husband and wife were on the policy.
As one might expect, the claim was assigned for investigation and the claims adjuster phoned the residence. The adjuster’s notes indicate she spoke with Mr. Cooper to confirm the facts. Cooper decided to express his views on the subject. Those views included his election not to join in the claim as he did not believe the reported theft occurred. He told the adjuster that his wife did not own some of the articles she professed stolen and that the values seemed inflated to him. He added that he did not think the event occurred even though he was not present when the car was allegedly broken into. He share his view that his wife “was a liar who could not be trusted.”
Notwithstanding the fun loving hijinks portrayed in modern day auto insurance advertising, insurance companies do not chuckle when they hear that a claim may be fraudulent. The matter was referred from the Claims Division to the Fraud Department at Erie and the insurer demanded an in person interview with Burns. In fact, Erie initially denied the claim.
Burns sued Erie for failing to pay the claim and she added her husband as a defendant claiming he slandered her by telling the adjuster that his wife was a liar and otherwise interfered with her contractual right to make a claim based on theft. Erie settled the insurance claim and was dismissed from the suit. But the action against Mr. Cooper went to trial with a jury. The jury was not happy with what they heard. They came back finding his liable on both slander and interference with the policy. They awarded $55,000 in compensatory damages and $20,000 in punitive damages.
The trial court affirmed the verdict and dismissed post trial motions claiming that Burns was not damaged because Erie ultimately paid the claim. The Superior Court affirmed the trial court in August 2020. https://law.justia.com/cases/pennsylvania/superior-court/2020/2571-eda-2019.html. The case came to our attention in early 2022 when the Montgomery Law Reporter published a claim by Defendant asking to strike the judgment for lack of jurisdiction. The opinion of Judge Jeffrey Saltz notes that you really can’t attack subject or in personam jurisdiction after the appeal of the underlying case was affirmed.
Where does this leave the defendant? That would be with a $75,000 judgment plus whatever he invested in a jury trial and what looks like the cost of three appeals. The Supreme Court denied allowance of appeal in April, 2021. The second Superior Court appeal was dismissed in December, 2021. https://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/J-A26036-21m%20-%20104979428154136802.pdf?cb=1. In so doing the appellate described the defendant’s appellate positions as baseless.
If someone slips on your front walk, your homeowner’s insurer is there for you. Homeowner’s policies can be resorted to in some situations where there is defamation or other kinds of intentional claims. But those claims are dealt with quite differently where the tort is intentional. Moreover, insurers almost never contribute to punitive damage claims. Chances are high that there is no coverage for $75,000. And now, the trial court has been instructed to create a record for a counsel fee award to Ms. Burns on top of the first verdict.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Just be careful to whom you express it.