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Patterson v. GEICO Gen. Ins. Co.

Supreme Court of Alaska

April 3, 2015

TOMMIE PATTERSON, Appellant,
v.
GEICO GENERAL INSURANCE COMPANY, Appellee

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, John Suddock, Judge. Superior Court No. 3AN-11-12087 CI.

Tommie Patterson, Pro se, Anchorage, Appellant.

Kimberlee A. Colbo, Hughes Gorski Seedorf Odsen & Tervooren, LLC, Anchorage, for Appellee.

Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.

OPINION

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BOLGER, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

A driver injured in a hit-and-run accident sued his car insurance company, claiming it had breached his insurance contract by failing to reasonably compensate him for his injuries. He later moved to amend his complaint to include racketeering, embezzlement, mail fraud, and bad faith claims, but the superior court denied the motion. A jury trial was held, and the jury returned a liability verdict that was smaller than the insurance company's offer of judgment. The superior court ruled that the insurance company was the prevailing party and awarded attorney's fees and costs. The driver appeals the denial of his motion to amend, the awarding of attorney's fees and costs, and several of the court's other procedural and evidentiary rulings. Because we see no abuse of discretion in the court's rulings, we affirm the judgment.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

Tommie Patterson was injured in a hit-and-run accident in December 2009. The front driver's side door of Patterson's SUV was visibly damaged by the collision, and Patterson complained of neck and shoulder pain to an examining physician. At the time of the accident, Patterson held a GEICO General Insurance Company (GEICO) automobile insurance policy that contained a provision for uninsured motorist coverage.

Patterson and GEICO disputed the severity of Patterson's injuries sustained in the December accident. Patterson, initially represented by counsel, filed a complaint against

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GEICO alleging breach of the insurance contract. He claimed that he had " incurred medical expenses, travel expenses and general damages" for which " GEICO has refused to offer . . . a reasonable amount." In its answer, GEICO admitted that Patterson had a GEICO insurance policy, that he had reported a hit-and-run accident, and that he " may be entitled to some uninsured motorist benefits under [his] coverage." But GEICO also raised affirmative defenses, asserting that Patterson's " injuries . . . may be the result of a pre-existing or subsequently occurring condition," and that Patterson " is not entitled to recover medical expenses paid under his own Medical Payments Coverage."

Patterson's attorney moved to withdraw for cause. The attorney explained:

[Patterson] has refused to take my advice regarding resolution of this matter and I feel that I have done everything I can to explain to him that even though he has [$1,000,000] worth of coverage, he does not have a [$1,000,000] case and I will not present that as an offer to settle.

Patterson consented to the attorney's withdrawal and notified the court that he intended to proceed pro se. He acknowledged that disagreements with his attorney over the available damages had led to the attorney's withdrawal.

GEICO moved for an order in limine to manage the case as a personal injury dispute, to prevent both parties from presenting evidence or arguments about Patterson's policy limits, and to notify Patterson that his medical records -- including his medical history from before and after the accident -- might be admissible. The superior court granted GEICO's motion.

Patterson then moved to amend his complaint to include new claims, alleging racketeering, embezzlement, mail fraud, and bad faith. He claimed that GEICO refused to honor its contract with him and was thereby committing " '[f]raud' by selling insurance policies[] knowing very well that the policies were not going to be honored." The court denied Patterson's motion to amend, finding it both untimely and futile. The court concluded: " Mr. Patterson makes no evidentiary showing to justify a late-filed [racketeering] claim. His pleadings reveal [a] lack of understanding about Geico's contract obligations. Amendment would be futile[.]"

At a pretrial status hearing, the court advised Patterson that he was not entitled to $1,000,000 for his injuries and suggested that he might be acting against his own interests by taking the case to trial. Patterson replied that he was only asking for a " fair" sum and that he was unwilling to settle for the amount GEICO had offered. GEICO's counsel informed the court that Patterson's offers of judgment were for $800,000 and $1,000,000, and he indicated that a jury trial remained necessary to resolve the parties' dispute.

In December GEICO perpetuated the testimony of its expert witness, Dr. Douglas Bald, by deposing him with Patterson present. Dr. Bald testified that, after reviewing Patterson's medical records, he believed the accident had caused " very minor muscular type injuries to [Patterson's] neck, upper back, [and] chest area" and that Patterson " had effectively recovered from the injuries . . . as of approximately January 12, 2010, which would be a little over a month post-accident." Dr. Bald also opined that many of Patterson's claimed injuries -- most notably his lower back pain -- were the result of preexisting conditions.

Patterson objected to Dr. Bald's qualifications, and on cross-examination he questioned Dr. Bald about four malpractice claims that had been filed against him over the course of his career. Dr. Bald acknowledged that he had settled a single, legitimate malpractice claim against him, but he testified that the remaining three claims had been dismissed. Patterson also suggested that there might have been errors in the medical records upon which Dr. Bald relied. Dr. Bald acknowledged that doctors occasionally fail to note reported symptoms in medical records. But he also testified that he had relied on multiple records and that December 2009 records consistently did not include references to Patterson's claimed lower back pain.

Fifteen days before the trial was set to begin, Patterson moved to disqualify the trial judge. Patterson argued that the judge was

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biased and prejudiced against him. The superior court denied the motion to disqualify and the matter was assigned to another superior court judge for review, as required by AS 22.20.020(c). The reviewing court found no basis for Patterson's claims.

During the week before trial, the superior court ordered a pretrial conference to determine whether Patterson was willing to follow the court's orders while in the presence of the jury. The court was concerned about statements in Patterson's trial brief asserting " a [F]irst [A]mendment right to speak and present all issues . . . on any subject[] matter pertaining to Geico's embezzlement, fraud[], [and] refusal to honor [the] insurance policy[] limits of their contract." At the hearing the court reiterated that the case would be tried only as a personal injury dispute. The court also informed Patterson that it would dismiss the suit unless Patterson unambiguously agreed to follow the court's orders and limit his evidence and arguments to the only relevant issue: the severity of Patterson's accident-related injuries. Patterson eventually agreed, and the court ruled that his agreement was sufficient assurance to allow the trial to proceed.

The superior court held a jury trial. Patterson declined to testify, and chose to rely exclusively on his evidentiary exhibits and the videotaped deposition of Dr. Bald. During Patterson's opening statement, the court sustained multiple objections when Patterson attempted to discuss facts outside his exhibits and Dr. Bald's deposition. And when Patterson tried to tell the jury that there were subjects he had been instructed not to discuss, the court ordered him to stop talking and sit down. During GEICO's opening statement, Patterson objected when his prior medical history was mentioned, but the court overruled this objection.

Patterson then introduced and played Dr. Bald's videotaped deposition, which was edited to exclude portions the court had previously ruled inadmissible. Following the playback of the deposition and out of the jury's presence, Patterson rested his case, and GEICO moved for a directed verdict on Patterson's claim for future noneconomic damages. GEICO argued that the evidence Patterson presented -- his medical records, which extended only through early 2010, and Dr. Bald's deposition testimony -- provided no factual basis for these damages. The court granted GEICO's motion and noted that Patterson could have avoided this partial directed verdict by testifying.

The jury then returned for closing arguments. During Patterson's closing argument, the court sustained all seven of GEICO's objections -- most of which were for stating facts not in evidence -- and ultimately ordered Patterson to end his argument before his time had expired. During GEICO's closing argument, the court overruled Patterson's objection that GEICO should not have been permitted to recommend a specific pain and suffering award. And throughout Patterson's rebuttal argument, the court sustained additional objections when Patterson expressed his disagreement with the court's evidentiary rulings, mentioned his insurance policy's $1,000,000 coverage limit, and suggested that the outcome of his case would personally affect the individual members of the jury. After this final objection, the court again ordered Patterson to " have a seat."

The jury deliberated for less than two hours before returning a verdict finding GEICO liable for $5,000 in past noneconomic damages and $10,000 in past medical expenses.

Patterson moved for a new trial and relief from judgment under Alaska Civil Rules 59(d) and 60(b), alleging that his right to an impartial judge and jury had been violated. The superior court denied Patterson's motion.

GEICO moved for a verdict reduction to reflect medical expenses already paid on Patterson's behalf, for entry of final judgment and recognition as the prevailing party, and for attorney's fees and costs under Alaska Civil Rule 68. The superior court granted these motions. The court subtracted $5,000 from the jury's verdict to reflect already-reimbursed medical expenses, added $1,386 for prejudgment interest, and deducted $6,742 for GEICO's attorney's fees and $3,087.25 for GEICO's costs. The court issued

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a final net judgment of $1,556.75 in favor ...


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