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COOK v. WELTY

May 11, 1966

Willie V. COOK, Plaintiff,
v.
Elizabeth M. WELTY, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: HOLTZOFF

 The question presented on this motion is whether the plaintiff in an action for negligence should be entitled to discovery as to the existence of defendant's liability insurance, and the extent and the limitations of its coverage. This Court answers this question in the affirmative.

 This action was brought to recover damages for personal injuries arising out of an automobile accident. The owner and operator of the vehicle involved in the accident died subsequently to its occurrence, and this suit was instituted against the administratrix of his estate. The defendant's deposition was taken in the plaintiff's behalf. Questions were propounded to the defendant as to what, if any, liability insurance had been carried by the deceased and the limitations and extent of the coverage. She declined to answer on the ground that the queries were irrelevant. The matter is now before this Court on a motion to compel her to respond. It was stipulated at the argument that a similar question would also arise if interrogatories covering the same subject matter had been served.

 Whether the plaintiff in an action for negligence may obtain information concerning the defendant's liability insurance by means of appropriate discovery proceedings, has not been determined either in this Circuit or in this District. There are no reported opinions on this point either in the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, or in this Court. There appear to be no decisions on this topic by any Court of Appeals in the Federal judicial system. There are, however, numerous decisions in the various District Courts, which are divided on this point.

 In the following districts, it has been held that such information may be obtained by discovery: Hawaii, Furumizo v. United States, 33 F.R.D. 18; Western District of Kentucky, Hurt v. Cooper, 175 F. Supp. 712; Montana, Johanek v. Aberle, 27 F.R.D. 272, and Schwentner v. White, 199 F. Supp. 710; New Jersey, Hill v. Greer, 30 F.R.D. 64; Southern District of New York, Orgel v. McCurdy, 8 F.R.D. 585; and Oregon, Hurley v. Schmid, 37 F.R.D. 1.

 In the following districts, such discovery has been denied: Eastern District of Illinois, Gallimore v. Dye, 21 F.R.D. 283; Southern District of Illinois, Roembke v. Wisdom, 22 F.R.D. 197; Northern District of Ohio, McDaniel v. Mayle, 30 F.R.D. 399; Eastern District of Pennsylvania, McClure v. Boeger, 105 F. Supp. 612, and the Western District of Pennsylvania, Rosenberger v. Vallejo, 30 F.R.D. 352.

 There are two districts in which different judges have reached divergent results. Thus in the Eastern District of Tennessee, such discovery was permitted in Brackett v. Woodall Food Products, Inc., 12 F.R.D. 4; but was disallowed in Cooper v. Stender, 30 F.R.D. 389. In the District of Connecticut, such discovery was granted in Novak v. Good Will Grange No. 127, et al., 28 F.R.D. 394, but barred in Flynn v. Williams, 30 F.R.D. 66, and Langlois v. Allen, 30 F.R.D. 67.

 In view of the fact that many States have adopted the Federal Rules, or have promulgated discovery rules similar to Federal provisions on the subject, decisions of State courts on this point are of interest. Such discovery has been allowed in California, Laddon v. Superior Court, 167 Cal.App.2d 391, 334 P.2d 638; in Kentucky, Maddox v. Grauman, 265 S.W.2d 939, 41 A.L.R.2d 964; and in Illinois, People ex rel. Terry v. Fisher, 12 Ill.2d 231, 145 N.E.2d 588. It has been disallowed in Arizona, Di Pietruntonio v. Superior Court, 84 Ariz. 291, 327 P.2d 746; in Delaware, Ruark v. Smith, 51 Del. 420, 147 A.2d 514; in Florida, Brooks v. Owens, 97 So.2d 693; and in Minnesota, Jeppesen v. Swanson, 243 Minn. 547, 68 N.W.2d 649.

 The objections to requiring a disclosure of liability insurance are that the purposes of discovery are either to obtain evidence to be introduced at the trial, or to secure information as to where such evidence may be found, or to narrow the issues to be tried. Information concerning liability insurance coverage is irrelevant to any of these topics. On the theory that a liability insurance policy is, in effect, an asset of the defendant, it is argued that discovery might as well be permitted as to all of the defendant's assets prior to securing a judgment against him.

 As a matter of strict logic such reasoning is invulnerable. Nevertheless, it is too narrow a view. The oft quoted observation of Justice Holmes that "The life of the law has not been logic, but experience", is applicable in this instance. The dockets of the courts, especially those in the big metropolitan centers, are crowded with negligence cases, the majority of them arising out of automobile accidents. The volume of this litigation is not likely to decrease in view of the continual growth in the number of motor vehicles on the streets and highways. Most of the cases are disposed of without a trial. In fact, the courts would be confronted with an impossible task if a majority of cases had to be actually tried. Most of them are either settled or dismissed. The situation is somewhat analogous to the manner of handling the criminal docket. The majority of criminal cases are disposed of by pleas of guilty. If most of them had to be tried, as well as a majority of the cases on the civil side of the court, it would be necessary to expand courthouses and to increase the number of judges all over the country, especially in the large cities, to a number much larger, perhaps several times larger than the present personnel. Judicial administration comprises much more than merely trying cases one by one as they are reached. The courts must also deal with dockets as a whole. It is in the interest of the administration of justice as well as beneficial to individual litigants from their personal standpoint that as many cases as possible be amicably adjusted without a trial, provided that this result can be reached on a fair and open basis.

 Liability insurance is an established feature of modern life. Most defendants in negligence actions carry such policies. While there are a great many motorists who do not possess such protection, many members of this group are not financially responsible, and frequently when they are involved in an accident no suit is brought against them for this very reason. Where liability insurance is present, the insurance carrier takes over the defense of the action and furnishes counsel to the defendant as well as investigating facilities. Counsel selected and paid by the insurance company, is of course in the eyes of the law and from the standpoint of legal ethics, the advocate for the defendant, rather than the insurance carrier. An attorney and client relationship arises as between defendant and counsel supplied by the insurance company.

 It is not to be doubted that information concerning liability insurance coverage and its extent is conducive to fair negotiations and to just settlements. For example, in cases where injuries are very great, but insurance coverage is very low, and the defendant is otherwise impecunious, the plaintiff might well be led to accept a smaller settlement than the extent of the injuries would otherwise warrant. On the other hand, if in such an instance the limits of the insurance policy are high, there appears to be no fair reason for refraining to disclose such information to plaintiff's counsel. Many other situations may be envisaged where it is both just and important that plaintiff's counsel should be informed as to the size of defendant's liability insurance policy. Insurance companies frequently reveal the information, while often they decline to do so. This matter should not rest in their discretion.

 No showing has been made that the defendant or his insurance carrier may be prejudiced by furnishing the information. The Court is unable to perceive any disadvantage that would result to them, except perhaps purely as a matter of tactics, which would not necessarily be conducive to a just disposition of the litigation. Refusal to require disclosure would help perpetuate "the sporting ...


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