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Keller v. Serio

Court of Appeals of Maryland

February 26, 2014

Kara KELLER
v.
Charles J. SERIO and GEICO Insurance Company.

Page 284

Robert J. Zarbin (Zarbin Law Firm, LLC, Upper Marlboro, MD), on brief, for Petitioner.

Andrew Janquitto (Mudd, Harrison & Burch, L.L.P., Towson, MD; Scott C. Woods, Linthicum, MD), on brief, for Respondents.

Page 285

William W. Willoughby, Esquire, Gershon, Willoughby, Getz & Smith, LLC, Baltimore, MD, for Amicus Curiae brief of the Maryland Association for Justice in support of Plaintiff-Petitioner.

Argued before: BARBERA, C.J., HARRELL, BATTAGLIA, GREENE, ADKINS, McDONALD, and WATTS, JJ.

ADKINS, J.

[437 Md. 280] In this case we are asked to decide whether it is reversible error for a trial court to reject a jury instruction on the nature of underinsured motorist (" UM" ) coverage when an insurer is a party to the suit, but the issue of coverage is not before the jury. Because we fail to see how a question pertaining to coverage can constitute an essential part of a plaintiff's theory of the case in litigation confined to causation and damages, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

[437 Md. 281] FACTS AND LEGAL PROCEEDINGS

This appeal arises out of a dispute between Kara A. Keller (" Petitioner" ), who was injured in a motor vehicle accident, and her UM coverage provider GEICO and the at-fault driver Charles J. Serio (collectively " Respondents" ). On April 21, 2006, Petitioner was rear-ended by Serio. Petitioner's car suffered superficial damage. After the accident, Petitioner and Serio exchanged insurance information. Keller subsequently drove home, called an attorney, and went to the emergency room. Her medical treatment, which lasted over five years, spanned multiple care-givers and addressed headaches, back pain, and overall chronic pain. Her medical bills totaled $27,355.69.

In April of 2009, Keller filed suit against Serio in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. Keller later informed her motor vehicle insurer, GEICO, with whom she had UM coverage, of the potential for a UM claim. GEICO then successfully moved to intervene as a defendant to protect its possible interest in the litigation.

At the trial, the parties stipulated that Serio was at fault for the accident. The only issues before the jury were causation and damages. In her opening statement, Petitioner's counsel identified Serio as the at-fault driver, and identified GEICO as Keller's UM policy carrier. GEICO's counsel identified herself at trial. GEICO did not offer an opening statement, did not question witnesses, and did not present a closing argument. After Keller and Serio presented their cases, the trial court instructed the jury on the questions of causation and damages as they appeared on the verdict sheet. Keller's counsel offered a proposed jury instruction on the nature of UM coverage.[1] The trial court refused to give this instruction, [437 Md. 282] noting that insurance was not at issue at the trial. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Keller for $27,355.69, which was the amount of her medical bills. On the itemized verdict sheet, the jury entered $0 for both future medical expenses and non-economic damages.

Petitioner later filed a motion for a new trial claiming that the jury award was inconsistent by awarding damages for medical expenses related to alleviating pain, but no damages for pain and suffering,

Page 286

and that in not giving an instruction about the nature of UM coverage, the trial court confused the jury. The court denied this motion. Petitioner then appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. In an unreported opinion, the intermediate appellate court declined to find an abuse of discretion either in the trial court's declining to instruct the jury on the definition of UM coverage, or in its declining to order a new trial on the basis of the inconsistent verdict.

We granted certiorari to address the following question: [2]

[Whether] the failure to instruct the jury about the reason the plaintiff's underinsured motorist carrier is a party to a tort suit is reversible error?

Because the issue of UM coverage was not before the jury, we answer this question in the negative. Petitioner has no right to a jury instruction on a ...


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