Mind Versus Body: Does “Bodily Injury” Encompass Purely Emotional or Mental Harm?
In Garrison v. Bickford, 377 S.W.3d 659 (Tenn. 2012), the Tennessee Supreme Court was called upon to determine whether emotional distress, standing alone, falls within the ambit of “bodily injury” as that term was used not only in the uninsured motorist policy at issue in the case, but is also used in Tennessee’s uninsured motorist statute.
In Garrison, a car driven by Andy Bickford struck and killed Michael Garrison. Michael Garrison’s parents, Jerry and Martha Garrison, and younger brother, Daniel Garrison, heard, but did not see, the collision. They did, however, respond to the accident in an attempt to render aid. Following Michael’s death, the Garrisons filed claims for wrongful death and negligent infliction of emotional distress against Andy Bickford and the owner of the car, Rita Bickford. According to the complaint, the Garrisons “suffered grief, fright, shock, depression, loss of sleep and other problems” as a result of what they saw.
In addition to filing suit against the Bickfords, the Garrisons served a copy of the complaint upon their own insurance company, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (“State Farm”), pursuant to the uninsured motorist provision of their policy. The Garrisons’ policy with State Farm covered “damages for bodily injury an insured is legally entitled to collect from the owner or driver of an uninsured motor vehicle.” The policy defined “bodily injury” as “bodily injury to a person and sickness, disease, or death that results from it.”
As the litigation progressed, the Garrisons settled their claims against Andy Bickford. The Garrisons also settled their wrongful death claim with State Farm. However, State Farm refused to pay damages for the Garrisons’ emotional distress claims on the basis that emotional harm did not fall within the policy’s definition of “bodily injury.”
After the trial court found in favor of coverage, State Farm appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals, who reversed the trial court’s decision. On appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Garrisons argued that the policy’s definition of “bodily injury” was broad enough to encompass emotional harm and, even if it was not, the uninsured motorist statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(a), was broad enough to include emotional injuries, thereby superseding the policy’s more restrictive language. In response, State Farm maintained that the Garrisons’ mental injuries did not constitute “bodily injury.”
In evaluating the parties’ respective positions, the Supreme Court started by reviewing the relevant portion of Tennessee’s uninsured motorist statute, which states:
Every automobile liability insurance policy…shall include uninsured motorist coverage…for the protection of persons insured under the policy who are legally entitled to recover compensatory damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles because of bodily injury, sickness or disease, including death, resulting from injury, sickness or disease.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(a) (emphasis added).
Noting that the uninsured motorist coverage statute’s meaning of “bodily injury” was an issue of first impression in Tennessee, the Supreme Court decided to look to the decisions of other jurisdictions that had been called upon to evaluate the meaning of “bodily injury” in various contexts. The Supreme Court ultimately adopted the majority view, concluding that the term “bodily injury,” as used in both Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201(a) and in the Garrisons’ policy of insurance, did not include damages for a mental or emotional injury by itself. In support of its decision, the Supreme Court noted that the words “bodily injury to a person and sickness, disease, or death that results from it” (as used in the policy) and the words “bodily injury, sickness, or disease, including death” (as used in Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201 (a)) are unambiguous and, when used to define “bodily injury,” refer to physical, not emotional, conditions of the body. More specifically, the Tennessee Supreme Court held:
In sum, a bystander claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress, such as that asserted by the Garrisons, is not a claim for bodily harm…Thus, we hold that, as applied to this case, “bodily injury” does not include damages for emotional harm alone. We further conclude that the definition of “bodily injury” in the policy does not conflict with the uninsured motorist statute, section 56-7-1201(a). Consequently, we reject the Garrisons’ argument that the statute supersedes the policy language.
Garrison, 377 S.W.3d at 671.
In holding that the term “bodily injury,” as used both in the policy at issue and the Tennessee uninsured motorist statute, does not include damages for emotional harm alone, the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the policy did not cover the Garrisons’ emotional distress claims. Accordingly, the Garrisons’ emotional distress claims against State Farm were dismissed.
While the ruling in Garrison certainly favors insurers, the case does highlight a potential area of weakness in insurance policies. For this reason, it may be advisable for insurers to consider whether it might be a better practice to include language in their policies expressly stating that the term “bodily injury” does not include damages for “emotional harm” standing alone.