Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes.
Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

In a closely-watched fight between an insurance company and its policyholders over uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage, GEICO’s counsel wants the limit set at $25,000, but for now the courts have sided with the customers’ argument that it should be $100,000.

The Georgia Court of Appeals came down on the side of the policyholders with an opinion released Tuesday, because there was no evidence the customers in the case had chosen the lower coverage.

Presiding Judge Anne Barnes, joined by Judges Brian Rickman and Tripp Self, upheld Cook County Superior Court Judge Carson Dane Perkins on this key point: “The amount of uninsured/underinsured motorist (‘UM’) coverage available to Wanda and Victor Morgan under their automobile insurance policy with Government Employees Insurance Company (‘GEICO’) [is $100,000].”

Barnes sifted through a confusing history of policy changes for the longtime GEICO customers and came to this conclusion: “The trial court ruled that the policy provided the Morgans with the default amount of UM coverage set forth in OCGA § 33 7 11 (a) (1)—an amount equal to their policy’s liability limit of $100,000 per person—because there is no evidence that they affirmatively chose a lower amount of coverage. … We affirm.”

GEICO argued the Morgans should have the statutory minimum UM coverage of $25,000 per person but could offer no proof of such a selection.

The important message in the Barnes opinion is that, absent evidence to the contrary, policyholders are entitled to UM coverage equal to their liability limits.

The multiplication factor of the money at stake has not gone unnoticed. The Georgia Trial Lawyers Association weighed in with a friend of the court brief in support of the policyholders. GEICO found the trial lawyers’ opinion so objectionable that the company tried to have the brief removed from the record.

“It wasn’t just the $75,000 for this case. It’s a much bigger issue,” said one of the winning lawyers, Haynes Studstill of the Studstill Firm in Valdosta.

She handled the case with her law partner and husband, Justin Studstill. Both 2007 Mercer University law graduates, they worked for big firms in Atlanta—she with King & Spalding and he with Balch & Bingham—before opening a Valdosta practice for the Studstill Firm—founded by Justin’s father, Daniel Studstill, whose office is 27 miles away in Nashville, Georgia.

She said her father-in-law is the kind of small town lawyer who never says no to a case, who won’t let a church pay him for transactional work and who always leaves clients smiling after meeting with him.

“We just do the best we can and hope our clients like us half as much as they like my father-in-law,” she said.

The clients in the GEICO case are neighbors two doors down from Haynes and Justin Studstill. Wanda Morgan was hurt in a car wreck in 2013 at the entrance to their neighborhood. She eventually had surgery on her neck, running up about $100,000 in medical bills. The at-fault driver’s insurer, Progressive, paid its $25,000 limit early on. The Studstills pursued GEICO for the underinsured motorist coverage.

“I knew all along we were going to win,” said Hayes Studstill. “I knew we had the law on our side.”

On the other side is Wallace Miller III of Macon, a fourth-generation lawyer who literally wrote the book called “Georgia Automobile Insurance Law”—and has updated it annually for the past 29 years. Miller said Wednesday his deadline for the 2018 edition is June 1. The timing is unfortunate, because he may also be writing a brief for the Georgia Supreme Court on the UM question—which he agreed affects many other cases.

Wallace said he plans to ask GEICO in a “big powwow” Friday to allow him to appeal the Barnes decision.

The case is Government Employees Insurance Company v. Morgan, No. A17A0020.