In Eoff v. McDonald, the Supreme Court of Missouri upheld a St. Louis County circuit judge’s refusal to allow plaintiffs’ counsel additional time during jury selection to ask the “insurance question”, after counsel forgot to do so earlier when it was his turn to question potential jurors. The decision hinged on the determination that the right to ask the question is not absolute and must follow a procedure designed to balance the plaintiff’s right to ask the question to ensure a fair and impartial jury with potential prejudice to the defense by unduly highlighting the insurance issue.
It is common practice for Missouri plaintiff counsel, consistent with the holding in Ivy v. Hawk, 878 S.W.2d 442 (Mo. banc 1994) (reversing and ordering new trial where trial court failed to allow plaintiffs’ counsel to ask prospective jurors the preliminary insurance question), to question potential jurors whether they have a financial interest in the defendant’s malpractice insurer. Ivy is one in a long line of Missouri cases holding a trial court must permit this even though evidence of a defendant’s liability insurance is inadmissible under the collateral source rule. The Ivy opinion explains the proper procedure: (1) obtain the court’s approval outside the jury panel’s presence; (2) ask only one "insurance question;" and, (3) do not ask it first or last in a series of questions so as to avoid unduly highlighting it. The form of the question is at the trial court's discretion – it generally encompasses whether any members of the panel or their families work for or have a financial interest in the named insurance company.
The Eoff plaintiffs sued a physician and her employer for the alleged wrongful death of their daughter during delivery at birth. During discovery, the physician disclosed the identity of her medical malpractice insurer, a small insurance company located nearly 300 miles from St. Louis County. At trial, Plaintiffs’ counsel submitted to the court in writing his proposed insurance question for jury selection. Defense counsel did not object, and counsel proceeded with lengthy jury selection, covering 173 pages of trial transcript. Plaintiffs’ counsel concluded his questioning without asking the insurance question, apparently forgetting to do so. After realizing his mistake, Plaintiffs’ counsel sought the court’s permission for additional time to ask the question after defense counsel’s final question. Plaintiffs’ counsel indicated he would ask the question as the second of three additional questions. The trial judge denied the request because she believed the risk of prejudice to the defense by unduly highlighting the insurance issue outweighed any prejudice to plaintiffs, especially considering the insurance company was small and located across the state.
After a six-day jury trial resulting in a defense verdict, the trial judge denied the plaintiffs’ motion for new trial. The plaintiffs appealed, and the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, reversed and remanded for a new trial based on the trial judge’s refusal to allow Plaintiffs’ counsel to ask the insurance question. The Supreme Court of Missouri accepted the case for review.
The Supreme Court of Missouri disagreed with the Court of Appeals, and affirmed the trial court’s decision and jury verdict. The Supreme Court held that Ivy neither affords plaintiff counsel the unqualified right to ask the insurance question nor divests a trial court’s discretion to control the timing and sequence of jury selection. The Eoffs’ counsel failed to follow the procedure set forth in Ivy, and therefore waived the right to ask the insurance question. Under Ivy, a new trial is warranted only if a trial court denies the right to ask a proper insurance question. Here, it was not incumbent on the trial court to permit the Eoffs’ counsel a second chance.
The Eoff opinion breathes new life into a mainstay of the jury selection process for many Missouri medical negligence jury trials. The holding confirms the right to ask the insurance question. But it also emphasizes both the importance of following proper procedure, and the trial court’s discretion in conducting jury selection and balancing the right to ask the question with the risk of potential prejudice. Eoff serves as a stark warning to trial counsel to remember to ask the insurance question, and to do so at the appropriate time.
Missouri courts have long held that when an agent for another makes a contract with a third party without disclosing the agency, the individual will be bound by the contract and the third party may hold the agent or the undisclosed principal responsible at his election. On September 24, 2019, the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, in Alpha Petroleum Company vs. Hani Daifallah, et al. applied this principle, and held that agents who did not properly disclose the agency relationship when entering into a business relationship with a third party were personally liable for the ensuing transactions.
The case involved the lease of a convenience store with gasoline services, between Plaintiff Alpha Petroleum’s sister company, A.J. Partnership, and the Defendants. Under the lease agreement, Defendants were required to purchase gasoline products from Alpha Petroleum. In the regular course of the dealing between the parties, Alpha Petroleum would ship the fuel to the convenience store location and subsequently invoice the Defendants. After Alpha Petroleum advised the Defendants that it was terminating the lease of the convenience store, the parties agreed to a six month extension to allow Defendants additional time to vacate the premises. Before the premises were vacated, Defendants received two more fuel deliveries, both of which went unpaid. Alpha Petroleum sued, seeking damages for nonpayment on account and unjust enrichment. Defendants contended that a separate entity, Zik Moe, Inc., a corporation owned in part by Defendant Mohammed Daifallah, operated the convenience store and was therefore liable for any debt owed to Alpha Petroleum. The trial court entered a judgment against Defendants, jointly and severally, for the entirety of the unpaid balances.
On appeal, Defendants argued that (1) there was no substantial evidence in the record to support the trial court’s conclusion that Defendants were personally liable for the debt owed by Zik Moe, and (2) the trial court misapplied the law by piercing the corporate veil to find Defendant’s personally liable for the debt owed to Alpha Petroleum. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling below. It noted that to prevail on a substantial evidence challenge, a defendant must demonstrate that there was no evidence in the record tending to prove a fact necessary to sustain the trial court’s judgment as a matter of law. But here, the trial court record contained evidence that the Defendants failed to disclose they were purported agents of a corporation during the five years they had done business with Alpha Petroleum, which was sufficient for the trial court to conclude that Defendants were personally liable for the unpaid invoiced, based on their failure to disclose an alleged agency relationship. Having upheld the judgment in favor of the Plaintiff on the first point, the Court of Appeals concluded it did not need to consider whether the trial court properly found Defendants personally liable for the debt Alpha Petroleum by piercing Zik Moe’s corporate veil.
The ruling reinforces the need for agents to be fastidious in disclosing the agency relationship, and in ensuring that the existence and identity of the principal are known, in order to avoid potential personal liability for future misdeeds of their principal.
In 2008, Chad Franklin became a party to several lawsuits related to the “Drive for Life” promotion at his used car dealership, Chad Franklin National Auto Sales North, LLC. A full explanation of the details of the “Drive for Life” promotion can be found within a previous BSCR blog post here. At the time, Franklin was insured by Universal Underwriters Ins. Co. (“Universal”). Universal denied defense and coverage for the claims. Franklin filed suit for wrongful denial of coverage for the “Drive for Life” claims which were eventually settled in 2010 for $900,000. This $900,000 settlement would eventually trigger another round of litigation.
Soon thereafter, Lewellen filed suit against Franklin alleging fraudulent misrepresentation and violations of the MMPA, resulting in a 2012 award of $25,000 in actual damages and $1 million in punitive damages against Chad individually for his fraudulent misrepresentation, and $25,000 in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages against Chad Franklin National Auto Sales North, LLC for a violation of the MMPA. Lewellen was also awarded attorneys’ fees totaling $82,810. In 2013, Lewellen sued Universal and Franklin, alleging that the $900,000 settlement between Universal and Franklin was fraudulent. The Clay County Circuit Court entered the following in that action, which were appealed to the Western District:
- Denial of insurance coverage on the Lewellen’s claim that Franklin committed fraudulent misrepresentation in the sale of a vehicle;
- Awarding insurance coverage under Lewellen’s policy with Universal for the actual and punitive damages on the Lewellen’s MMPA claim against Franklin;
- Summary judgment in favor of Universal on Lewellen’s claims that the settlement agreement was a civil conspiracy to commit a fraudulent transfer and violated the MMPA;
- Denial of Lewellen’s claim for tortious interference with a business expectancy;
- Striking Franklin’s pleadings after several alleged discovery violations and entering default judgment on Lewellen’s fraudulent transfer and MMPA claims against him.
After Franklin’s pleadings were stricken, a jury awarded Lewellen $266,370in actual damages and $450,000 in punitive damages on each of her two claims. The court merged the actual damages on the two claims but granted the total amount of punitive damages and awarded Lewellen $189,060 in attorneys’ fees.
1. The Court of Appeals upheld the denial of insurance coverage for Lewellen’s claim that Franklin committed fraudulent misrepresentation in the sale of a vehicle.
Lewellen contended the court erred in denying insurance coverage for the damages awarded on her fraudulent misrepresentation claim against Franklin. The Western District appellate court disagreed, and found that the policy’s exclusion of dishonest and fraudulent acts was valid, rejecting Lewellen’s contention that the language was ambiguous. The court also held that the definition of “occurrence” in Franklin’s Universal policy did not provide insurance coverage for damages on Lewellen’s fraudulent misrepresentation claim.
2. The Court of Appeals reversed the finding of insurance coverage under Lewellen’s policy with Universal for the actual and punitive damages on the Lewellen’s MMPA claim against Franklin.
Universal argued on appeal that the trial court erred in finding Franklin’s policy covered Lewellen’s MMPA claim, asserting that the fraud exception and the policy definition of “occurrence” noted above should preclude coverage. Lewellen argued that not only did Franklin’s policy afford coverage to her MMPA claim, but the coverage of that claim triggered the concurrent proximate cause rule granting coverage to her extinguished fraudulent misrepresentation claim.
The appellate court first turned to the policy definition of “loss” which was defined as “all sums the INSURED legally must pay as DAMAGES because of INJURY to which this insurance applies caused by an OCCURRENCE.” The court held that the conduct underlying Lewellen’s fraudulent misrepresentation and MMPA claim was the same conduct. Because the Court had already determined that Franklin’s actions were intentional and, therefore, not an “occurrence” under the policy, it found the same for the MMPA claims. The Court reversed summary judgment in Lewellen’s favor and denied coverage for the MMPA claims. In reaching this decision, the Court found that the concurrent proximate cause rule did not apply to Lewellen’s claims.
3. The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of Universal on Lewellen’s claims that the settlement agreement was a civil conspiracy to commit a fraudulent transfer and violated the MMPA.
Lewellen contended the trial court erred in granting Universal’s motion for summary judgment on her claims that Universal’s settlement agreement with Franklin amounted to a civil conspiracy to commit a fraudulent transfer with Franklin. In granting summary judgment in Universal’s favor, the trial court noted that the “[f]acts that may cause the bad faith settlement payments to Tiffany Franklin to appear suspicious (or even if arguably fraudulent) do not offset” the common law requirement that without a lien, a mere general creditor does not have a sufficient right or interest in his debtor’s property to give him standing to maintain a suit against a third person converting the debtor’s property with the intent to defraud the debtor's creditors. Lewellen argued that the Missouri Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act (“UFTA”) removed the common law rule that a lien was a condition precedent for standing to maintain a lawsuit against a third party.
After a lengthy discussion of the language of the UFTA and analysis of opinions rendered in other jurisdictions on the issue, the Court adopted the majority viewpoint that absent a proper lien, a claim of civil conspiracy against a third party cannot be maintained under the UFTA.
4. The Court of Appeals affirmed denial of Lewellen’s claim against Universal for tortious interference with a business expectancy.
Lewellen argued that the circuit court erred in granting Universal’s motion for summary judgment on her claim that Universal tortiously interfered with a business expectancy. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding that there was no authority for the proposition that a plaintiff in a lawsuit possesses “a valid business expectancy” in the future collection of a judgment either before or after a judgment is entered.
5. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s entry of default judgment against Franklin after several alleged discovery violations.
Franklin claimed that striking his pleadings as a discovery sanction was inappropriate because Lewellen was not prejudiced by his failure to appear at his scheduled deposition, which the appellate court rejected. The Court of Appeals noted that even with threats of sanctions, Franklin still failed to make appearances and it was not until later that his counsel learned that he was in a rehabilitation center. Additionally, Franklin claimed that the circuit court abused its discretion by improperly considering and taking judicial notice of his discovery violations in other cases. The court of appeals found that the circuit court had not its discretion because the other cases were related, and even consolidated, with the current case at issue. Furthermore, the court reasoned that Franklin was an experienced businessman who was “no stranger” to the legal system, and who knew or should have known of the dire consequences of disappearing, without notice, during pretrial proceedings.
6. The Court of Appeals reversed the jury’s award of punitive damages.
Franklin argued that the trial court committed instructional error by providing a damage instruction and verdict director that removed the threshold finding of outrageousness for an award of punitive damages. The Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the modification of 10.01 removing the requirement that the jury find that Franklin’s conduct was outrageous was “unnecessary and improper” and materially affected the merits and the outcome of the case. The appellate court also agreed with Franklin that the trial court erred in the exclusion of evidence as to the nature and structure of the settlement with Universal. The case was remanded for a new determination of punitive damages.
Lewellen v. Universal Underwriters Insurance Company et al., WD81171.
* Kelly M. “Koki” Sabatés, Summer Law Clerk, assisted in the research and drafting of this post. Sabatés is a rising 3L student at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
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