The Role of Insurance in Personal Injury Trials
Defendants’ Liability Insurance
The vast majority of all personal injury awards are paid, not by individual defendants, but instead by the individual defendants’ insurance companies. Automobile owners, business owners and homeowners regularly pay significant premiums to insurance companies for the express purpose of insuring against liability to third parties. Thus, when an insured individual negligently causes injury to a third party, it is typically that person’s insurance company which defends against, and pays for, any claims brought by the third party.
Notably, the fact that a defendant has liability insurance which will cover both the defendant’s legal fees and the amount of any judgment is information that is typically kept secret from the jury. Our courts routinely prevent jurors from hearing about applicable insurance coverage on the grounds that jurors’ decisions might be influenced improperly by consideration of who would pay for any judgment. 11 Minn. Prac. 411.01. Specifically, the courts are concerned that jury verdicts might increase in magnitude if jurors were informed that a wealthy insurance company would be paying the judgment.
Unfortunately, hiding the existence of liability insurance from the jury often creates an even worse consequence. “Modern jurors are aware that insurance may be involved in personal injury litigation.” 11 Minn. Prac. 411.01. As such, jurors coming into a trial often have an expectation that the defendant probably carries liability insurance. When evidence of insurance is kept hidden, many jurors then make the inaccurate assumption that the defendant must not be insured. This assumption, that there is no insurance, is dangerous because it can cause jurors to improperly reduce the amount of their verdicts in an effort to avoid putting too much economic burden on an individual defendant.
Plaintiffs’ Health Insurance
Generally, where a plaintiff has received or will receive health insurance payments (or disability payments), the judge must reduce any verdict awarded to the plaintiff by the amount of any insurance or disability payments which have been, or will be made to plaintiff. M.S.A. § 548.36. This practice ensures that no plaintiff will receive double recovery for his or her injuries.
Just as the existence of a defendant’s liability insurance is typically not admissible at trial, the existence or non-existence of a plaintiff’s health or disability insurance is also generally excluded. The fact that such evidence is excluded has little overall effect, as any jury award which might be duplicative of insurance payments will be reduced by the amount of such insurance payment.