The New Jersey Superior Court, Appellate Division, has upheld a defense verdict in a matter contending that an automobile insurer improperly lowered liability and personal injury protection coverage limits without the consent of the named insureds. Brown v. Government Employees Ins. Co. concerned changes made to a policy over two years after the policy had been purchased. The policy listed a married couple as the named insureds. The insurer’s records reflect that an individual who was believed to be the plaintiff’s spouse had contacted the insurer to request that her adult stepdaughter be added to the policy. At the same time, this individual requested that the policy’s bodily injury liability limits be reduced from $250,000/$500,000 to $15,000/$30,000, and that the policy’s personal injury protection limits be reduced from $250,000 to $15,000. The changes in PIP coverage were confirmed by a form e-signed on the insurer’s website, apparently by the plaintiff. The stepdaughter was subsequently involved in an accident while driving her mother’s vehicle, killing the stepdaughter and her mother.
The plaintiff policyholder contended that neither he nor his deceased spouse had contacted the insurer to request the policy changes. He further testified that his stepdaughter was responsible for obtaining her own insurance coverage on her vehicle. While updated declarations pages reflecting the changes in coverage were sent to the policyholder’s residence, the policyholder testified that he never saw them and speculated that his stepdaughter received the documents and withheld them from him.
The insurer’s records also indicated that while the policyholder’s premium payment following the changes in coverage reflected the previous premium, a supplemental payment was made on the policyholder’s credit card covering the increase in premium after the policy changes. The policyholder testified that he did not make this payment, and believed that his stepdaughter had taken his credit card to make the payment. However, the records also reflected that additional premium payments were made after the plaintiff’s spouse and stepdaughter died.
The insurer presented a single defendant: a senior underwriter who testified as to the verification process utilized by the insurer for confirming the identity of policyholders who request policy changes over the phone.
The jury returned a 7-1 verdict in favor of the defendant insurer. The trial court denied the plaintiff’s motion for a new trial. In affirming the trial court’s order, the appellate court emphasized the plaintiff’s failure to provide either a transcript of the proceedings in which the motion was argued or a written statement of the trial court’s basis for denying the motion, thereby making it impossible to assess the trial court’s reasoning. The Court further noted that the jury’s verdict was not against the weight of the evidence. The Court explained that the plaintiff’s case rested upon the credibility of his testimony, and that assessment of such credibility was a question for the jury. The Court also determined that the insurer presented competent evidence that the plaintiff’s spouse had requested the change in coverage limits prior to the accident.
Brown v. Governmental Employees Ins. Co. reflects the importance of establishing proper procedures for verifying the identity of policyholders requesting policy changes over the phone. As Brown demonstrates, evidence of such a process may effectively preclude subsequent efforts by policyholders to disavow such changes.