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Dionne Davis, Et Vir. v. Tania Nicole Arevalo Martinez

May 2, 2013

DIONNE DAVIS, ET VIR.
v.
TANIA NICOLE AREVALO MARTINEZ, ET AL.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wright, J.

Wright, Berger, Nazarian, JJ.

Opinion by Wright, J.

On May 25, 2010, Dionne Davis and Darryl Davis, appellants, filed suit in the Circuit Court for Prince George's County against Tania Nicole Little Martinez, appellee,*fn1 for negligently causing an automobile accident. Martinez tendered the $20,000 limit of her liability insurance policy but the Davises's underinsured motorist ("UIM") policy carrier, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company ("State Farm"), the other appellee, rejected this offer in order to preserve its subrogation rights. Later, the Davises amended their complaint to include a count against State Farm titled "Breach of Contract and/or Statutory Duty for Failure to Pay Underinsured Motorist Insurance Benefits." State Farm then filed a cross claim against Martinez.

Before trial, Martinez filed a Motion in Limine to preclude any reference to her insurance policy or to State Farm as a defendant. The trial court granted the motion over the Davises' objection. On November 23, 2011, a jury found that Martinez was not negligent by way of a special verdict. The Davises filed a timely motion for a new trial arguing that the trial court erred in precluding identification of State Farm. On January 9, 2012, the trial court denied the motion. On February 7, 2012, the Davises filed this appeal.

Question Presented

The Davises present one question, which we present verbatim: Did the trial court err by hiding from the jury the presence of [a]ppellee State Farm in the case, including but not limited to the claims by and against [a]ppellee State Farm, and the identity of [a]ppellee State Farm's attorney who participated throughout the trial?

Facts and Proceedings

On January 27, 2008, a vehicle operated by Martinez collided with a vehicle operated by the Davises. Mrs. Davis alleged that she suffered bodily injuries and other damages. The Davises alleged a loss of consortium. At the time of the accident, Martinez was insured by USAA Insurance Company with a liability limit of $20,000. The Davises were insured by State Farm and carried $50,000 in UIM coverage.

Prior to trial, the $20,000 limit of Martinez's insurance policy was tendered. The Davises sent notice of the tender to State Farm and requested that State Farm accept or reject the settlement offer. State Farm rejected the offer and instead put forth $20,000 to preserve its subrogation rights. The Davises also requested that State Farm tender the difference between the limit of their own UIM policy ($50,000) and Martinez's settlement offer ($20,000). State Farm responded that it needed additional time before it could agree to tender that amount.

On November 5, 2010, the Davises amended their complaint to include a count of "Breach of Contractual and/or Statutory Duty- Failure to Pay Underinsured Motorist Insurance Benefits" against State Farm. On March 20, 2011, State Farm filed a cross-claim against Martinez.

On November 18, 2011, Martinez filed a Motion in Limine to preclude any mention to the jury of State Farm's presence at trial. In her written motion, Martinez explained that "[n]ot only would the subject of insurance be presented to the jury, the jury could easily infer that [Martinez] did not comply with Maryland insurance law or that she purposefully carried minimum insurance." At a hearing on the morning before the trial, counsel for Martinez explained:

We're not supposed to, obviously, bring in the issue of insurance where it has the opportunity or the likelihood of influencing the jury to know that there's insurance coverage out there regardless of the extent and regardless of the circumstances, because it causes them to speculate on what it is that-- or who it is that's paying for all of this when all is said and done.

The Davises opposed the motion, both in writing and at the hearing, relying primarily on King v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 157 Md. App. 287 (2004). The trial court granted the Motion in Limine stating that the case at hand was distinguishable from King because State Farm's presence "ha[d] nothing to do with whether or not [Martinez] was negligent. It ha[d] nothing to do with what damages [the Davises] suffered."

Accordingly, State Farm's attorney was present at the trial but the identity of his client was not revealed to the jury. When counsel introduced himself, he stated his name, and that he was "another lawyer in this case," but omitted any mention of State Farm. During voir dire, the court ...


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