It has been a long held principal under Missouri evidence law that in trial a personal injury lawyer, generally, cannot tell a jury through testimony or argument, that the defendant has auto, homeowners, or other insurance coverage to pay any judgement or verdict the jury may award. This is often referred to as “collateral source rule”, however, the collateral source rule can apply to other situations as well.
In fact, in “voire dire” or jury selection, the defendant does not even want to mention the word insurance, but the personal injury plaintiff’s lawyer wants to talk about insurance as much as possible. Why? because if the jury knows there is insurance to cover a judgment they are likely to be more generous with their verdict. Jurors will sometimes give an inadequate verdict because they feel sorry for or do not want to saddle the defendant with a money judgement, and knowledge of insurance coverage alleviates that situation.
There are several ways for the Plaintiff to get the issue of insurance into the case (assuming the defendant is not an insurance company themselves).
1. The Insurance Question during Voire Dire:
Prior to jury selection and typically during pretrial, the Plaintiff’s injury attorney should ask the court for permission to ask the jury one question about insurance and the general form of that question must be approved along with agreement that it cannot be used first or last and emphasis over other questions cannot be placed upon the insurance question. Typically, the question is phrased as”Does anyone on this jury panel work for or have an interest in __________ Insurance Company?” See, Ivy v. Hawk, 878 S.W.2d 442 (Mo.banc 1994), when the Missouri Supreme Court held it permissible for a plaintiff to ask if any potential jurors have an interest in a particular insurance company, as it “preserves the balance of permitting the plaintiffs to know if any members of the jury panel have an interest in the insurance company while avoiding the prejudice of emphasizing the issue of insurance.” Such a practice of allowing one “insurance question” protects the right of both parties to a fair and impartial jury. Moore v. Middlewest Freightways, 266 S.W.2d 578, 586 (Mo.1954).
Then if someone has some interest in that particular insurance company the lawyer must be very careful as how to proceed and not improperly inject the issue of insurance into the case, or else risk a mistrial or a plaintiff’s verdict being overruled. Typically, ask what interest the person has, and if it is that they are a policy holder, leave it at that. However, if it is more than that, such as they are an employee or a contractor for that particular insurance company, it is generally wise to call the jury member to the bench for further questioning outside the rest of the jury.
2.The Defendant Opens the Door:
On the flip side, the defendant or their lawyer cannot argue or imply to the jury that the defendant will be saddled with the judgment or have to pay out of their own pocket for the judgment, such an argument is great for Plaintiffs, because it opens the door for us to inject insurance into the case. Respond with argument to the jury that their is no evidence that the defendant will be personally responsible for any judgment and even if they were, for the jury to properly follow the law they must only consider what amount of money compensates the Plaintiff, not what would harm the defendant, unless punitive damages are an issue.
In the case of Ballinger v. Gascosage Electric Cooperative, 788 S.W.2d 506 (Mo. banc 1990). This issue was addressed directly by the appellate court. At the trial court level, the defense insinuated the defendant would have to personally pay any injury verdict, the very good personal injury attorney in that case responded as follows:
“That is just exactly the point I’m making. Mr. Oliver also said you will determine how much will be paid by the Defendants, and that is not true. There is no evidence in this case that the Defendants will have to pay one penny of any judgment entered. It’s not for you to determine. (Emphasis supplied).“
The appellate court upheld the trial court allowing the above argument by stating in their opinion “The plaintiff may have skated close to the edge, but we conclude that there was no abuse of discretion.” Meaning the trial court acted properly.
3. Other Situations:
Insurance clearly comes up in Missouri Uninsured Motorist lawsuits and Under-insured Motorist cases as the defendant is the insurance company themselves. Additionally, issues of insurance sometimes can be brought up, if more probative than prejudicial, during witness examination if they have relevant insurance background. Sometimes in medical malpractice cases malpractice insurance coverage of the expert being the same of the defendant doctor can be relevant. There are many other reasons, but generally, insurance stays out.