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Stepanovich v. McGraw

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

October 15, 2013

NEIL STEPANOVICH
v.
JOHN MCGRAW AND STATE FARM INSURANCE COMPANY APPEAL OF: STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, IMPROPERLY NAMED AS STATE FARM INSURANCE COMPANY NEIL STEPANOVICH
v.
JOHN MCGRAW AND STATE FARM INSURANCE COMPANY APPEAL OF: JOHN MCGRAW

Appeal from the Order Entered July 31, 2012 In the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County Civil Division at No(s): GD10-16523.

BEFORE: FORD ELLIOTT, P.J.E., OTT, J., and MUSMANNO, J.

OPINION

OTT, J.

In this appeal, defendants John McGraw (McGraw) and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm) appeal from the order entered on July 31, 2012, in the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, granting Neil Stepanovich's (Stepanovich) post-verdict motion for new trial. The trial court granted Stepanovich a new trial finding a perceived violation of procedural due process, specifically, the failure to identify State Farm to the jury as a party to the lawsuit. We reverse the order granting a new trial and remand for entry of judgment in favor of all defendants.[1]

The factual underpinnings of this matter are that Stepanovich was a pedestrian involved in a motor vehicle accident with a car driven by McGraw. There was no dispute that McGraw's vehicle came into contact with Stepanovich and that Stepanovich suffered some injuries as a result. The underlying dispute in the tort action was over negligence and the extent of the injuries. Stepanovich claimed McGraw was speeding and ran a red light, thereby causing the accident. McGraw claimed Stepanovich crossed the street against the light and outside of the marked crosswalk, thereby causing the accident. The jury found McGraw was not negligent.

In addition to the tort claim against McGraw, Stepanovich also filed suit against State Farm, his own automobile insurer, for underinsured motorist benefits. Pursuant to the State Farm insurance policy, Stepanovich was required to sue the alleged tortfeasor and State Farm in the same action.[2]

In response to the tort action and contract action being brought together, McGraw filed preliminary objections seeking, in relevant part, to bifurcate the issues. McGraw claimed:

Admitting State Farm Insurance Company as a Defendant to the cause of action against the Defendant McGraw has prejudiced the Defendant McGraw. Pennsylvania case law has long held that the introduction of insurance into evidence, in a claim against a tortfeasor, is not only irrelevant and inadmissible but the mere mention of insurance is so prejudicial that it could be considered justification for mistrial. Paxton Insurance Company v. Brickajlik, 522 A.2d 531 (Pa. 1987). The inclusion of State Farm Insurance Company in the Complaint against the Defendant McGraw has created a scenario in which the admission of insurance into evidence will have to take place at trial.

McGraw's Brief in Support of Preliminary Objections, 5/13/11, at 1-2.

Stepanovich responded to McGraw's Preliminary Objections, in relevant part, claiming bifurcation was improper. He further argued:

Defendant McGraw's contention that joinder of the claims is prejudicial because it introduces evidence of insurance into the action has been rejected by all of the above-listed courts.[3] The above cases have acknowledged that although an insurer is a party to the action, it does not mean that "evidence of insurance" will be introduced at trial or that prejudice would result. All issues involving Mr. Stepanovich's claim against his UIM carrier can be resolved without reference to the policy of insurance, insurance limits, etc.

Stepanovich's Brief in Opposition to McGraw's Preliminary Objections, 6/6/11, at 11-12.

In consideration of the Preliminary Objections and Response thereto, the trial court issued its order, stating in relevant part,

Said preliminary objections are GRANTED as follows: the tort claim and UIM claim shall be tried first, and insurance will not be mentioned to jurors or prospective jurors except as required by Pa.R.C.P. 220.1(a)(11), and the trial judge ...

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