Experienced Insurance Lawyer

In cases involving insurance, an experienced insurance lawyer needs to be hired.  This is illustrated in an Austin Court of Appeals opinion styled, Jessica Dennis and Douglas Dennis v. GEICO.

In August 2016, GEICO sued the Dennises, alleging that a “motor vehicle owned by Plaintiff’s insured Rene Zavala … was damaged by a vehicle negligently operated by Douglas Dennis, whose negligence proximately caused the collision and damages in the amount of $10,417.28.  Plaintiff compensated its insured for the loss, thereby becoming subrogated in the amount of $10,417.28.”  The petition further alleged that, “at the time of the collision, Jessica Dennis was the owner of the motor vehicle driven by Douglas Dennis, and the vehicle was operated with Jessica’s consent and knowledge.  Upon information and belief, Jessica wrongfully and / or negligently entrusted his/her motor vehicle to an incompetent, reckless, unlicensed and uninsured driver”

The Dennises filed an answer and counterclaim asserting that it was Zavala, not the Dennises, who negligently caused the collision.  The Dennises later filed with the Court a number of documents purporting to demonstrate the damages they incurred as a result of the collision.  Douglas also filed an affidavit alleging that Zavala’s negligence caused the collision.

In December 2016, GEICO filed a “Motion to Enter Final Default Judgment” asserting that Jessica had failed to file an answer after being served.  A court official sent an email to GEICO’s counsel stating that the trial court was “unable to sign the judgment because defendant has filed an answer.”  GEICO later filed a motion for summary judgment with accompanying documents.

In November 2017, the trial court held a bench trial at which the Dennises, who were acting pro se at the time, did not appear.  At the trial, the only evidence GEICO presented was the notice of trial sent to the Dennises and the green cards allegedly demonstrating that the Dennises received the notice.  The trial court then signed the final default judgment, and the Dennises appealed.

The Dennises appeal asserted various reasons but this Court addressed only the Dennises’ contention that there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court’s judgment.

Unlike the situation with no answer default judgments, when a defendant answers but later fails to appear at trial, a default judgment cannot be taken based on the plaintiff’s pleading allegations alone.

A plaintiff seeking to prevail on a negligence cause of action must establish the existence of a legal duty, a breach of that duty, and damages proximately caused by the breach.  The only evidence that GEICO presented at trial was the notice of trial sent to the Dennises.  Moreover, although the documents attached to GEICO’s motion for summary judgment included an estimate of the costs of repair to Zavala’s vehicle, the only evidence that GEICO presented that could have established that it was the Dennises’ negligence that caused the collision was a police report.  However, the police report notes that the officer cited Zavala for “Failed To Yield — Right Turn On Red.”  In addition, under “Contributing Factors,” only Zavala’s vehicle is listed.

Accordingly, there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court’s judgment.  The case was reversed and remanded for a new trial.

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