Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Superior Court correctly awards 93A damages based only on lost interest

Update: See this post for a clarification.

In my last two posts I have discussed the recent Superior Court decision in Sterlin v. Commerce Insurance Company. As I noted, Commerce was slapped with 93A damages for ignoring overwhelming evidence that a car accident was the fault of its insured driver.

The plaintiffs' damages in that case were enough to make even a cold-hearted over-analytical lawyer like myself feel a twinge of sympathy. The car that was hit had three occupants. The woman who spent two weeks in a body cast was not the worst-injured. Rather that was Pierre, who suffered a degloving injury to his dominant right hand, and various fractures of his hand, fingers, and wrist. He was hospitalized for 16 days and had a total of four operations. His thumb was amputated. Eventually his pinky was amputated and reattached in his former thumb's position.

In addition, because he could not work he lost his job and his medical insurance. His wife also lost her job. After maxxing out help from charities, friends, family, and credit cards, he received a loan against the expected proceeds of the lawsuit.

With a $500,000 policy limit to be divided among Pierre and two other occupants of the car, he received $275,000 in settlement of the underlying claim.

The court held that the 93A damages would start to run from a month after the insurer received complete medical records, and would be cut off at the time that it finally made a reasonable offer of settlement, a period of about five months.

The court noted that unjust delay in reaching a settlement subjects a claimant to costs and frustrations that are encountered when litigation must be instituted. It continued, "Moreover, when an insurer wrongfully withholds funds from a claimant, it is depriving that claimant of the use of those funds." The court held that the loss of use of money constitutes actual damages, consisting of the interest that would have been earned on that money at a rate of five percent. Therefore, the judge held, the actual damages were $5,733.75. He trebled that amount pursuant to the punitive damages provision of 93A, to $17,201.25.

The judge correctly calculated the 93A damages. This case is a good reminder that no matter how egregious an insurer's actions are, damages are based on lost interest, not the amount of the settlement or verdict.

The judge also awarded costs and attorney's fees, to be determined at a later hearing.

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