Court affirms decision denying insured PIP benefits, but overturns $149,000.00 attorney fee sanction awarded Liberty Mutual
Littrell Williams-Inner sued her insurer, Liberty Mutual, for PIP benefits after a car wreck. Her attorneys did not fully answer Liberty Mutual's interrogatories about expert witnesses, despite a motion to compel answers. Apparently, Liberty Mutual also didn't provide complete answers to similar interrogatories, but the insured's attorneys never sought an order compelling answers. Ultimately, Liberty Mutual obtained a ruling from the court preventing the insured from offering expert testimony by any of the treating doctors. After a trial (with no expert testimony) the jury found no PIP benefits due and Liberty Mutual sought $190,000.00 in sanctions.
The Court awarded $149,000.00 in attorneys' fees against the insured, and refused to allow her lawyers to examine the billings upon which the award was based. The Court also granted the attorneys a higher-than-average hourly fee ($400 per hour) along with fees for paralegals whose qualifications were not identified. Allegedly, it awarded Liberty Mutual more fees than the insurer actually incurred.
The Court upheld the decision to prevent the injured plaintiff from offering any expert testimony, but reversed the sanction award, for all of the above reasons. It held that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in the expert decision, but that the judge did not comply with the rules on awarding fees.