Insurance Claims, Third Party Liability and Jurisdiction in Florida Car Accident Cases – Noyes v. Universal Underwriters Insurance Company

While Florida car accident cases often include claims against other drivers, there are a wide variety of circumstances in which third parties like manufacturers, parts makers, designers and repair shops may be liable for a crash. In Noyes v. Universal Underwriters Insurance Company, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida recently took on a case against an insurer that evolved from a separate case against an allegedly negligent auto repair shop.

Mr. Chattelle sued Tampa Auto Service following a Florida car accident in which Chatelle’s wife was severely injured. He alleged that the company wrongly decided to repair rather than replace a flat tire on the vehicle when he brought it into the shop three months earlier and said the defective tire caused the crash. Tampa Auto and its employees, including service manager Mr. Noyes, were insured by Universal Underwriters.

Seven months after he filed the case, Universal Underwriters’ counsel – Mr. LoNigro – sent Chattelle a letter offering to settle the matter for $1.3 million, which was the policy limit. Chattelle rejected the offer and later amended his complaint against Tampa Auto to include Noyes as a Co-Defendant. The case proceeded to trial, where a jury awarded Chattelle $7 million in damages against Tampa Auto and $6 million in damages against Noyes individually.

Noyes then sued Universal Underwriters for bad faith, alleging that the company failed to try to settle the matter within the policy limits in a timely manner. Noyes sued in state court, and he also included a malpractice claim against LoNigro. Universal Underwriters then removed the case to federal court, arguing that the claim against LoNigro – which was ultimately settled – was a sham intended to avoid the federal court’s “diversity” jurisdiction. Federal courts have jurisdiction over cases in which all of the parties are from different states. Although Universal Underwriters is a non-Florida company, Noyes and LoNigro are both Florida residents.

Denying Noyes’ motion to remand the case back to state court, the District Court held that he fraudulently joined LoNigro as a defendant in order to destroy diversity jurisdiction. The Court explained that a defendant typically must remove a case to a federal court within one year of it being filed. There is an exception, however, for cases in which a plaintiff fraudulently joins a party simply for jurisdiction purposes.

Here, the Court said Noyes claim against LoNigro for malpractice appeared to be fraudulent because it was clear that no attorney-client relationship existed between the two parties. Nor did he establish that he was an intended third-party beneficiary of the attorney-client relationship between Universal Underwriters and LoNigro, according to the Court. “The Court concludes that Noyes’ fraudulent joinder was meant to manipulate the state court’s jurisdiction and constitutes bad faith,” the Court concluded. “Therefore, Universal’s removal of the case is not barred by the one year time limitation.”

As this case makes clear, there are a number of complications that can arise when an insurance company gets involved in an auto accident. If you’ve been involved in an accident, it is important to consult a seasoned attorney before communicating with an insurer. Miami personal injury attorney Robert Dixon is committed to helping his clients get the compensation they deserve. Contact us online or call us today at 1-877-499-HURT (4878) for a free, confidential consultation so you can figure out your next steps.

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