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Washington Court of Appeals Emphasizes Insurers May Not Categorically Ignore Their Insureds’ Treating Physicians

Posted Tuesday, May 22, 2018 by McKean J. Evans

Shannon Leahy found herself in a common situation when dealing with her auto insurer following a car crash. Her insurer agreed she was not at fault, but refused to pay her claim, arguing her medical treatment was unrelated to the crash. Ms. Leahy’s doctors agreed her treatment was related to the crash, but State Farm ignored Ms. Leahy’s doctors in favor of the opinions of State Farm’s “independent” medical expert who (unsurprisingly) opined Ms. Leahy’s treatment was unrelated. Can they do that?

In Ms. Leahy’s case, the answer was “no.” On May 21, 2018, the Washington Court of Appeals clarified that insurers may not ignore the opinions of their insureds’ physicians when making coverage determinations in Leahy v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company, No. 76272-9-I.

Ms. Leahy was injured when her vehicle was struck from behind. The other driver was at fault, but had insufficient insurance to cover Ms. Leahy’s injuries. Accordingly, Ms. Leahy made a claim with her auto insurance carrier State Farm, with whom she had coverage for Personal Injury Protection (“PIP”) and Underinsured Motorist coverage (“UIM”).

Ms. Leahy was still receiving treatment from her injuries about two years after the crash. State Farm asked her to undergo a medical exam with a third party doctor chosen by State Farm to determine whether her ongoing treatment was medically necessary. State Farm’s third party doctor, Dr. Lecovin, determined Leahy’s treatments were excessive. Thereafter, State Farm determined it would no longer cover Ms. Leahy’s treatment under her PIP coverage.

State Farm also disputed whether Ms. Leahy’ UM policy covered her injuries. State Farm’s adjuster concluded Ms. Leahy’s injuries were not caused by the collision. Ms. Leahy claimed the crash aggravated her pre-existing medical condition and thus that the aggravated injury was covered.

The dispute went to trial, at which the jury found in favor of Leahy. State Farm paid the policy limits. Ms. Leahy asserted new claims for bad faith premised on State Farm’s handling of her claim. The trial court dismissed Ms. Leahy’s claims and she appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reinstated Ms. Leahy’s claims. The court determined State Farm arguably violated the law by failing to consider the opinions of Ms. Leahy’s treating physicians that her injuries were aggravated by the crash. Ms. Leahy’s physicians were both board-certified rheumatologists and University of Washington faculty. The court determined there was a reasonable dispute whether State Farm could simply ignore their opinions. At minimum, Ms. Leahy was entitled to have a jury decide whether State Farm’s conduct was reasonable.

The court also determined State Farm’s low offer compared to Ms. Leahy’s recovery at trial could potentially show State Farm acted in bad faith. The court emphasized the proper analysis was what State Farm knew at the time it made the offer, not after trial. Given the evidence showed a legitimate conflict between State Farm’s position that Ms. Leahy’s injuries were mostly unrelated to the crash and the opinions of Ms. Heahy’s treating physicians, the court determined Ms. Leahy was entitled to a trial on this issue.

In sum, the Leahy decision is an important win for Washington policyholders because it emphasizes insurers may not categorically ignore the opinions of the insured’s treating physicians in order to deny coverage.

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