Personal Injury Handled by Massachusetts Estate Discussed in Unique Federal First Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion

Bingham v. Supervalu, Inc. (No. 15-1437) is a federal appellate case that originated from the District of Massachusetts. In this case, an elderly woman was shopping at a grocery store in Boston when she was struck by a motorized cart, suffering a laceration to her right heel around her Achilles tendon. Soon afterward, her health declined, and she died within a year of the accident. Prior to her passing, she filed a negligence action in state court, which was taken over by her nephew, the executor of the Estate. The question that eventually gave rise to this appeal was whether or not the corporate entity that owned the grocery store was an insurer and subject to the legal obligation to negotiate a settlement as guided by Ch. 176D.

The original negligence suit was filed soon after the grocery store was purchased by a different parent company that had several subsidiaries. As part of its structure, the parent company had a centralized risk management system that oversaw the the claims made against all of its subsidiaries that were not covered by insurance. The grocery store had an insurance plan that transferred to the new parent owner, but only for amounts over two million dollars. The parent company was therefore responsible for all claims less than two million dollars. As a cost-saving measure, the company actually employed its own claims adjustors to perform the administrative functions for these sorts of claims, and it had a central account for payments made on claims. However, the parent company did not issue its own insurance policies to the subsidiaries.

The negligence suit moved forward, and two judgments were entered against the grocery store. First, there was a judgment for failing to timely respond to interrogatories, and second, $300,000 in damages were awarded to the Estate, plus post-judgment interest. The parent company declined to pay and instead chose to file an appeal to the Commonwealth Appeals Court. The decision was affirmed, but an appeal to the Supreme Court was threatened by the corporation. The Estate took a $475,000 settlement offer that was a little below the total awarded and the interest that would have been accrued to that date.

Three years after the settlement, a demand letter was sent by the Estate to the grocery store and parent company, asserting that the parent company, as an insurer, violated Ch. 176D and Mass. Gen. Laws Ch. 93A by failing to promptly resolve the Estate’s claim. The letter demanded payment of $1,000,000. Ch. 176D holds insurers accountable for failing to uphold the law and industry standards of fairness. This includes failing to negotiate and make offers of settlement in a timely manner. The District Court did not feel that the parent company met the definition of “insurer” as intended by the statutes. The Court of Appeals agreed, affirming the lower court’s decision.

The federal Court of Appeals primarily looked to a similar case decided by Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Morrison v. Toys “R” Us, Inc., 797 N.E.2nd 405 (Mass. App. Ct. 2003). In this case, the parent company also handled claims under one million dollars through a central risk management department. The SJC determined that, while the parent company met the definition of a “self-insurer,” this role did not extend its obligations to meet the expectations of Ch. 176D, since there was no contractual obligation to do so. As with the parent company in this case, that parent company did not sell insurance policies to its subsidiaries, and it only handled claims of its own subsidiaries – not assuming any risks for unaffiliated third parties.

The Massachusetts attorneys at the Law Office of James K. Meehan have the experience you need in both personal injury and trusts and estates law. Our lawyers know what type of pushback to expect from corporate entities that have the resources to prolong litigation in an attempt to limit settlement, and we are ready to aggressively pursue the damages you deserve. For a consultation, call our office at 508.822.6600.

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Massachusetts Supreme Court Ruling Allows Injured Couple to Keep Millions in Awarded Damages, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, September 28, 2015
Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Affirms Multi-million Dollar Verdict in Medical Malpractice Wrongful Death Suit, Massachusetts Injury Lawyers Blog, September 15, 2015