Claims for Emotional Distress Not Considered “Bodily Injury” Under Insurance Policy: Garrison v. Bickford

In a case of first impression, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the term “bodily injury”, within the context of uninsured motorist coverage, does not cover claims for mental or emotional harm without an accompanying physical injury to the insured.

An experienced Nashville car accident attorney can advise you of the current state of the law and help determine how much compensation you may be entitled to as a result of your injuries.

In the case before the state supreme court, Andy Bickford was the driver of a car that struck and killed Michael Garrison, an 18 year-old, who was riding a minibike near his family’s home. Although Michael’s parents and younger brother did not see the accident, they heard the collision and were the first to arrive on the scene. According to the complaint, Jerry and Martha Garrison witnessed their son’s “mangled body” bleeding on the side of the road. They waited for over an hour with Michael for an ambulance to arrive. He was airlifted to a hospital in Chattanooga where he died from his injuries sustained from the accident.

Based on these events, the Garrisons brought claims for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress against the driver of the car, Andy Bickford, and its owner, Rita Bickford. The Garrisons further sought relief from their own insurance company, State Farm, under their policy’s Uninsured Motorist (UM) provisions. Under that section of the policy, the insured is entitled to collect damages for “bodily injury” from their own policy with State Farm when the responsible owner or driver of another car is uninsured or underinsured. Important to this decision is the policy’s definition of “bodily injury,” i.e., “bodily injury to a person and sickness, disease, or death that results from it.”

From the driver of the car, the Garrisons received $25,000 for their wrongful death claim and $25,000 for their emotional distress claim. State Farm paid the Garrisons $75,000 for the wrongful death claim under the UM coverage but denied payment for their emotional distress claim.

The trial court found that the insurance policy provided coverage for the emotional distress claims, and the court of appeals upheld that conclusion, though it then held that the claims fell within the already exhausted coverage limits for damages to “Each Person” and that, as a result, there was no additional coverage available.

The Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ conclusion, though for a different reason — the court found that there was no coverage for the parents’ emotional distress claims regardless of the coverage limits. The highest court in the state set out to determine whether the Garrisons’ emotional distress, characterized as “mental injuries”, constituted “bodily harm” under the insurance policy. The court noted that uninsured motorist provisions are intended to provide protection to insured persons in the event of an accident with an uninsured motorist.

After a review of relevant case law, the court pointed out that, although this is an issue of first impression in Tennessee, many other jurisdictions have already concluded that bodily injury does not include mental or emotional harm without a physical injury to the insured.

The court found that the term “bodily injury” is unambiguous, clearly referring to a physical injury, not an emotional one. In this case, under the insurance policy at issue, a bystander witnessing a bodily injury to another was not permitted to recover damages for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The court emphasized that its decision is “in accord with the majority of other jurisdictions that have addressed the question.”

The court also denied the Garrisons’ claim that the uninsured motorist provisions conflicted with the governing state statute, and therefore, refused to allow the statute to supersede the policy language.

The holding in this case is limited to the specific facts at issue, including the insurance policy provisions as well as the circumstances surrounding the car accident. If you have been involved in a car accident, motorcycle accident, or other motor vehicle accident, there are many considerations when determining how much you may recover (and from whom), including Tennessee state law, insurance policy language, and so on. A skilled car accident attorney can help you develop a litigation strategy to maximize your recovery from all responsible parties.

For a free consultation concerning any potential claims arising from a car or motorcycle accident, contact the Law Office of David S. Hagy, PLC at (615) 975-7882, or use our online form. We serve clients throughout Tennessee.