Allstate wins fight over PIP benefits; over-reaches to punish victim for pursuing the claim
Althea Bell suffered a low back injury in 1987. She did not return to work afterwards and in 1990 she qualified for Social Security Disability. She received regular treatment through the 90s, but claimed that she began to need less help in 2003. In October of that year, she was involved in yet another car accident when she was rear-ended by another vehicle. She began treatment for neck trouble and "panic attacks" soon after. In January of the following year, she suffered yet another accident and was transported to the Emergency Department; the following month she underwent a spinal fusion surgery. It was her claim that after this last accident, Ms. Bell was simply incapable of doing much of anything, and she sought PIP benefits, including $150,000 in medical care, plus attendant care and domestic services, from her no fault PIP insurer, Allstate. When Allstate denied her claim, she and the medical providers sued.At trial, Bell and her doctors claimed that the 2003 and 2004 accidents exacerbated her prior medical problems and were a contributing factor in her medical expenses. Allstate presented its "independent" doctors' opinions that the 2003 and 2004 accidents played no role in her medical needs. The jury ultimately sided with Allstate's doctors and did not award any damages to Bell. Not satisfied with this victory, Allstate then sought to punish Bell with an award of sanctions, claiming that her claim was "fraudulent or so excessive as to have no reasonable foundation." The trial judge, pointing to Bell's doctors' supporting medical opinions, summarily rejected Allstate's request for sanctions. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's basic decision, but returned the case to the lower court for further factual findings by the judge.