Farmers Tex. Cty. Mut. Ins. Co. v. Zuniga, No. 04-16-00773-CV, 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 8678 (App.—San Antonio Sep. 13, 2017)
The Fourth Court of Appeals has weighed-in on insurability of punitive damages in Farmers Texas County Mutual Insurance Co. v. Zuniga, et al. The court found that a Farmers auto insurance policy covering “damages for bodily injury” does not require the insurer to pay punitive damages awarded in a lawsuit against its insured. The court noted a distinction between damages for bodily injury and punitive damages in that damages for bodily injury are regarded as compensatory damages, while punitive damages are awarded to punish the person being sued. Thus, the court held that the policy language “damages for bodily injury” does not cover punitive damages. This holding will most likely be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.
Jennifer Zuniga sued Christopher Medina to recover damages she sustained when the vehicle Medina was driving struck Zuniga from behind as she was walking. A jury found Medina both negligent and grossly negligent, and awarded Zuniga actual damages and punitive damages.
Thereafter, Zuniga was assigned all of Medina’s rights against Farmers, which insured Medina’s vehicle. Farmers filed suit against Medina and Zuniga seeking a declaration that the punitive damages were not covered by the policy or, alternatively, if the punitive damages are covered by the policy, Texas public policy prohibits coverage for the punitive damages. The trial court granted Zuniga’s motion for summary judgment that the policy provides coverage for punitive damages. Farmers appealed.
The appellate court first addressed Zuniga’s reliance on Manriquez v. Mid-Century Ins. Co. of Tex., wherein the El Paso court held that punitive damages were covered by policy language that provides for “payment of all sums which the insured shall become legally obligated to pay as damages because of…bodily injury.” The appellate court found Manriquez inapposite. First, the “all sums” language is absent from the Farmers policy. Further, unlike the broad language requiring an insurer to pay “all sums” the insured was legally obligated to pay “because of” bodily injury, the Farmers policy limits payment to “damages for bodily injury.”
The appellate court found that there is a definitional difference between “damages for bodily injury” and “punitive damages” where the former is regarded as compensatory damages aimed to make the injured party whole while the latter are damages, other than compensatory damages, awarded against a person to punish him for his conduct. The appellate court therefore held that the plain language of the Farmers policy which covers “damages for bodily injury” does not cover punitive damages and, as a result of its conclusion, it did not need to address Farmer’s argument that the insurability of punitive damages is against public policy.