As a southern Illinois auto accident attorney, I was disappointed to read a recent ruling from the Seventh Circuit saying severely injured people cannot expect to recover the full amount of their underinsured motorist policy. In Wehrle v. Cincinnati Insurance Co., Robert and Heike Wehrle were hit by a drunk driver with minimal insurance and sustained damages that together exceeded $2 million. They were able to recover $200,000 in total from the at-fault driver, and their underinsured motorist insurance from Cincinnati Insurance Co. subtracted that amount from its payout. They sued, arguing that their policy provides a full $1 million, but the district court disagreed and granted summary judgment to Cincinnati. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.
When the Wehrles were hit by underinsured drunk driver Eric Barth, Robert Wehrle had an injury claim worth more than $750,000 and Heike Wehrle had one exceeding $1.5 million. Barth’s insurance had a limit of $100,000 in damages for each person injured, so they collected $200,000 despite his fault. They turned to their underinsured motorist coverage from Cincinnati, which had a limit of $1 million for this situation. Cincinnati paid out $800,000, reasoning that their policy includes a provision that reduces the total payout “by all sums paid by anyone who is legally responsible” The Wehrles sued in federal district court for the remaining $200,000, arguing that the $100,000 they each received should be applied to their individual claims, such that Robert would retain an unpaid $650,000 claim and Heike would retain an unpaid $1.4 million claim. Thus, they argued, the $1 million policy limit should be imposed after reductions, permitting them the full amount. The district court granted summary judgment to Cincinnati.
The Seventh Circuit agreed, finding that the insurance policy unambiguously favored Cincinnati’s interpretation. The policy caps the Wehrles’ recovery at $1 million, which is not in dispute. They suggested that the policy is ambiguous about whether that cap should be applied as a first step, after which the $200,000 would be subtracted, or after $100,000 is subtracted from each person’s claim. But the Seventh found that this theory “flies in the face of the plain language” of the policy’s provision for subtracting previous payments: “The limit of insurance for this coverage shall be reduced by all sums paid… by or for anyone who is legally responsible.” Attempts to argue that the policy creates a per-insured track and a per-occurrence track are baseless, the court said, and thus all their arguments based on it fail. Noting that this is consistent with Illinois law, it upheld the district court.
The Seventh Circuit noted at the end that it sympathized with the Wehrles, which suggests that the decision left them in a bad position. Indeed, in my experience as a St. Louis car crash lawyer, a person with $1.5 million in damages has probably suffered a serious injury that may permanently reduce her quality of life. That money represents the need for serious, possibly ongoing medical care, and sometimes also lost income for the family. And it is not disputed that the crash was no fault of their own. As a Missouri motor vehicle accident attorney, I strongly urge my clients to carry all the uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance they can afford because of situations like this—and I work hard to ensure that valid claims on that insurance are fully paid.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients who suffered serious injuries or lost a loved one because of someone else’s carelessness. If you’d like to speak to us about your case and your legal options, call us today for a free consultation at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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