Pa. SC grants rare reargument in closely watched insurance case

By John O'Brien | Oct 17, 2007



PITTSBURGH - Just when Victor Sackett thought his fight with Nationwide Insurance was over, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided to give the company one more shot to prove its case.

Wednesday, the Court elected Nationwide's request for reargument of the case, which focuses on the stacking of underinsured/uninsured automobile policies. It is a case that even grabbed the attention of the state's Insurance Commissioner, Joel Ario. He filed a motion in support of reargument.

"It is hereby ordered that the Application for Reargument is granted, and this matter is resubmitted on the existing briefs and reargument pleadings," the Court's order says, adding Victor and Diana Sackett have 20 days to file a Brief in Response to the points made by Nationwide's Application for Reargument and by Ario's Amicus statement.

Nationwide also received amicus support from the Pennsylvania Defense Institute, the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania and the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association backed the Sacketts, as did dissenting Justice Cynthia Baldwin. She authored the original April 17 opinion that overturned a Superior Court ruling.

"As a general proposition, after this Court issues a decision, we move forward to the next case," Baldwin wrote. "Despite the doomsday prognostications of Appellee Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, the Insurance Commissioner and the insurance defense bar, this case is no different."

On Aug. 5, 2000, Victor Sackett was involved in an accident with Robert Bulger, whose insurance provider paid Bulger's underinsured motorist limit to Sackett.

After receiving this, Sackett sought UIM coverage from Nationwide, his own provider. Sackett had been with Nationwide since 1998, when he insured two cars, including $100,000 UIM limits per person. He signed a waiver rejecting stacking the UIM coverage.

Before the accident, Sackett added a third vehicle to the policy. Nationwide did not offer stacking to Sackett, who could have received $300,000 if his UIM policy was stacked.

The trial court and Superior Court agreed with Nationwide's argument that once stacking was rejected, it did not have a responsibility to ask again, even if a new vehicle was added to the policy.

The Supreme Court, however, said the state's Motor Vehicles Financial Responsibility Law. Quoting the statute, Baldwin wrote, "Each named insured purchasing uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage . . . shall be provided the opportunity to waive the stacked limits of coverage."

Justices Ronald Castille and Michael Eakin dissented. They said the statute used by the majority to reach their conclusion was unsupported by other sections of the MVFRL and previous court decisions.

"Section 1791 specifically addresses when an insured must be provided with notice of available coverages and benefits: 'It shall be presumed that the insured has been advised of the benefits and limits available under this chapter provided the following notice in bold print of at least ten-point type is given to the applicant at the time of application for original coverage, and no other notice or rejection shall be required...'" Castille wrote.

If the decision is upheld, insurers will most likely need to review all their automobile policies in which a vehicle was added to make sure stacking was offered.

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