Jury Finds for Insurer in Case of First Impression Involving Death of Policyholder

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Hassett | Donnelly successfully obtained a defense verdict in a case of first impression in a two-week trial in Middlesex Superior Court.  Plaintiff counsel’s post-trial Motion to Amend Judgment was denied and Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Appeal was allowed on April 15, 2022.

Case of First Impression

The decedent’s family asserted a new cause of action (wrongful death) against an insurance company in connection with an elderly policyholder’s death during the handling of a property damage claim.  In particular, plaintiff counsel argued that the actions of the defendant claims adjuster and the decedent’s living “deadline to deadline” outside of her home during repairs caused her to suffer from Takotsubo’s cardiomyopathy a/k/a “broken heart syndrome” and resulted in her death. During trial both sides offered expert testimony regarding plaintiff’s medical history and potential triggers for broken heart syndrome, as well as testimony regarding proper insurance claims handling and bad faith.

Plaintiff alleged in the Complaint that the insurer had committed bad faith and failed to timely settle a property damage claim made by the elderly decedent following a plumbing leak.  Plaintiff’s counsel alleged that the insurance claims adjuster refused to pay a fair amount for repair and renovations to the home and that the delay in paying the claim resulted in the decedent having to stay in temporary housing for an extended period of time.  Plaintiff’s counsel further alleged that while living in an extended stay hotel the decedent was allegedly told by hotel staff that she would need to leave the premises as the insurer had failed to extend her Alternate Living Expenses (ALEs) and, further, that hotel staff left a note or notes on decedent’s door advising the decedent she would need to leave.  Plaintiff’s counsel further alleged that the claims adjuster sent a letter to the decedent saying that the insurer would not continue to pay the ALEs if decedent did not agree to settle the property damage claim.  Moreover, plaintiff counsel alleged that the delay in settling the claim and having to live “deadline to deadline” caused the plaintiff to suffer emotional distress and that this stress resulted in her collapsing at the hotel.  After being brought to a nearby hospital for treatment, the plaintiff died.  Diagnostic testing revealed signs that the plaintiff may have suffered from Takotsubo’s cardiomyopathy.

The defendant insurer represented by Attorneys Scott Ober, David Hassett and Courtney Mayo of Hassett | Donnelly argued that the insurer did not act in bad faith, denied that the events occurred as alleged by plaintiff’s counsel and denied that the insurer ever sent any letter threatening to discontinue Alternate Living Expenses at any time.

Further, defense counsel argued that the plaintiff died of heart failure secondary to pneumonia as reflected in the coroner’s death certificate.  Through defendant’s medical experts, the defense further argued that the medical evidence showed that any “broken heart syndrome” was more likely than not caused by a physical trigger, such as pneumonia or COPD, rather than any emotional trigger.  Moreover, defense counsel argued that any delay in resolving the plaintiff’s property damage claim was caused by the construction contractor who was also the decedent’s son.  During the claims handling process, the decedent’s son had insisted that high-end kitchen cabinets be installed rather than comparable cabinets and would not start making repairs to the home until the insurance company paid the demanded figure.

Following the 8-day trial, the jury returned with a defense verdict for the defendant insurer, finding that the insurer was not negligent nor responsible for the death of the elderly plaintiff and did not commit bad faith. The jury returned with a finding of no negligence against the insurance company and judgment entered for the defendant.

Following trial, plaintiff’s counsel submitted a Motion to Alter and Amend the Judgment. After oral arguments and review of all rulings, motions, trial testimony, jury instructions, and the plaintiff’s own Special Verdict Slip which was adopted by the court during trial,  Judge Camille Sarrouf denied plaintiff’s motion to amend judgment on the grounds that there was no error in the judgment.  (See Judge Sarrouf’s decision here.) Further, Judge Sarrouf opined that the plaintiff failed during the trial to establish any causal connection between the alleged injury by the decedent and the defendant’s alleged unfair or deceptive acts or practice and, as such, overturning, amending and/or altering the judgment was not warranted.

The “Mailbox Rule” Does Not Apply to Notices of Appeal

Finally, plaintiff’s counsel filed a Notice of Appeal with the court, electing to send same by mail only. The court received and docketed the appeal after the deadline had passed. Defense counsel at Hassett | Donnelly filed a Motion to Dismiss on grounds that appeal was untimely. Plaintiff counsel opposed, arguing that plaintiff had an additional three (3) days for mailing.  In reply, defense counsel argued that the mailbox rule does not apply to notices of appeal and that plaintiff’s mistake did not equal any excusable neglect.  On April 15, 2022, Judge Joshua Wall granted Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss the Appeal.  (See Judge Wall’s decision here.)

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