by Jeffrey Kuykendal, McAngus Goudelock & Courie, LLC
On May 3, 2022, in Tutterow v. Hall, No. COA21-326, 2022-NCCOA-300, the North Carolina Court Appeals answered the question of how to calculate the underinsured motorist (“UIM”) coverage in a case involving both multiple underinsured tortfeasors and multiple UIM insurance policies.
On October 21, 2014, Vivian Tutterow was a passenger in a vehicle being driven by Pamela Crump. At that same time, Brian Hall was operating a vehicle owned by Kris Hall, his mother, and while in the course and scope of his agency relationship with Randy Hall Automotive, LLC. Ms. Crump stopped her vehicle in a lane of travel and Mr. Hall collided with the back of her vehicle resulting in Ms. Tutterow’s death.
Ms. Crump had an auto policy issued by Horace Mann with a $100,000 per person liability limit and a $100,000 per person UIM coverage limit. Mr. Hall was covered by an auto policy issued by Nationwide with a $100,000 per person liability limit. Ms. Tutterow also had an auto policy issued by State Farm with a $100,000 per person UIM coverage limit.
On October 10, 2016 Horace Mann tendered the $100,000 limits of its liability policy on behalf of Ms. Crump. On October 18, 2016, Nationwide tendered the $100,000 limits of its liability policy on behalf of Hall. Several weeks later, Ms. Tutterow’s estate informed the UIM carriers of the tenders, but advised that it had not accepted the tendered limits. Neither Horace Mann nor State Farm advanced any UIM coverage at that time.
In June 2017, Plaintiff informed the UIM carriers that it had accepted the liability limits of Ms. Crump’s policy. Soon thereafter, State Farm, in light of the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in Lunsford v. Mills, 367 N.C. 618, 766 S.E.2d 297 (2014), advanced $100,000 to Tutterow’s estate under its UIM policy while expressly reserving its rights to recoup those funds should Plaintiff recover some or all of the liability limits from the Nationwide policy.
In July 2019, Plaintiff informed the UIM carriers that it had accepted the liability limits of Mr. Hall’s policy. Shortly thereafter, State Farm requested that Plaintiff reimburse the $100,000 that it had advanced in 2017. The funds were placed in escrow and Plaintiff filed a declaratory judgment action to determine the obligations of the UIM carriers.
Plaintiff contended that the stacked per person limits of the two UIM policies, $200,000, was to be compared to the liability limits of Ms. Crump’s policy and Mr. Hall’s policy separately, meaning Ms. Crump was underinsured by $100,000 and Mr. Hall was also underinsured by $100,000. Further, Plaintiff argued State Farm had waived its right of subrogation by failing to timely advance within 30 days of notice of the tender of the liability limits. The UIM carriers contended that the stacked per person limits of the UIM polices were to be compared to the combined limits of the tortfeasors’ liability policies, meaning no underinsured motorist coverage was owed and that State Farm was entitled to reimbursement.
After the trial court granted summary judgment to the UIM carriers, Ms. Tutterow’s estate appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals focused on the language in the Financial Responsibility Act. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-279.21. The Court held:
Under the statute, the calculation of applicable UIM coverage has three basic steps. First, the reviewing court must determine if a torfeasor’s vehicle meets the definition of an “underinsured highway vehicle.” If so, the court must determine if the limits of that tortfeasor’s liability policy are exhausted. Finally, if those liability limits are exhausted, the court must calculate the amount of coverage that is available under the applicable UIM policy.
The Court noted that it was not disputed that the first two steps were satisfied and that UIM coverage was triggered. Thus, all that remained was to calculate the amount of UIM coverage available.
The Court determined the answer was in the unambiguous language of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-279.21(b)(4). The Court focused on the sentence, which provides:
Furthermore, if a claimant is an insured under the underinsured motorist coverage on separate or additional policies, the limit of underinsured motorist coverage applicable to the claimant is the difference between the amount paid to the claimant under the exhausted liability policy or policies and the total limits of the claimant’s underinsured motorist coverages as determined by combining the highest limit available under each policy…
The Court found this sentence answered the question of what to do when multiple UIM policies apply to a claimant. The Court held “the statute provides an unambiguous method to calculate the applicable limit of combined UIM coverage: it is the difference between the total amount paid under all exhausted liability policies and the total limits of all applicable UIM policies.”
As applied to the facts of the case, the total amount paid under the exhausted liability policies was $200,000, with $100,000 from the Horace Mann liability policy and another $100,000 from the Nationwide liability policy. The total limits of the available underinsured motorist coverages was also $200,000, with $100,000 from the Horace Mann UIM coverage and another $100,000 from the State Farm UIM coverage. Thus, the difference between those two totals was $0.00, which was determined to be the amount of available UIM coverage.
Beyond the unambiguous language of the Financial Responsibility Act, the Court noted the result comported with the purpose of the Act. The purpose of UIM coverage is to put the insured in a position where total insurance coverage for injuries sustained in an automobile accident is not less than the amount of UIM coverage obtained. The Court noted, the result in this case precisely accomplished that purpose. The available UIM coverage for Ms. Tutterow was a total of $200,000, which is the precise amount tendered to the Plaintiff by the carriers for the two liability policies.
Finally, the Court held that State Farm was entitled to reimbursement of the $100,000 it advanced. The Court determined the statutory provision requiring advancement within 30 days to preserve the right to subrogation was inapplicable. Once the limits of both of the liability policies were exhausted, the UIM carriers had no duty to advance any payments because they owed nothing under their policies. Thus, because State Farm did not have an obligation to advance payment under its UIM policy, it was entitled to have its advance returned in full.