Supreme Court Seal
South Carolina
JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT
Site Map | Feedback
2011-UP-136 - SC Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Co. v. Jenkins

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 268(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

South Carolina Farm Bureau Mutual Insurance Company, Appellant,

v.

Ronnie D. Jenkins and Sandra B. Jenkins, Respondents.


Appeal From York County
John C. Hayes, III, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2011-UP-136
Submitted January 11, 2011 – Filed April 5, 2011   


AFFIRMED


John Robert Murphy, of Columbia, for Appellant.

John S. Nichols, of Columbia; and Robert Verner Phillips, of Rock Hill; for Respondents.

FEW, C.J.:  Sandra and Ronnie Jenkins had three auto insurance policies with Farm Bureau that each carried liability limits of $25,000.00 per person, $50,000.00 per accident, and $25,000.00 for property damage.  For each policy, the Jenkins also chose to carry equivalent UM and UIM coverage. 

On May 30, 2003, the Jenkins went to the Farm Bureau office to increase their policy limits and met with Agent Joe Lee.  Lee testified that another agent, Crystal Martin, made initial changes to the Jenkins's coverage in Farm Bureau's computer system and these changes were reflected on pre-printed forms before Agent Lee met with the Jenkins. 

Lee filled in additional information on the forms and presented them to Ronnie Jenkins for signature.  Ronnie Jenkins concedes he signed the documents.  At the conclusion of the meeting, the Jenkins modified their policies to provide $250,000.00 per person, $500,000.00 per accident, and $100,000.00 for property damage in liability coverage.  Ronnie Jenkins testified that neither Lee nor any other Farm Bureau agent provided him with an explanation of UM and UIM coverage. 

After a car accident on July 15, 2006, Sandra Jenkins filed a claim with Farm Bureau for UM coverage for bodily injuries she sustained.  At the time of the accident, the Jenkins learned that their policy provided UM and UIM coverage only in the amounts of $25,000.00 per person, $50,000.00 per accident, and $25,000.00 for property damage. 

Farm Bureau filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a ruling that it made a meaningful offer of additional UM coverage to the Jenkins.  After a hearing, the trial court found that Farm Bureau did not make a meaningful offer of UM and UIM coverage and ordered that the policy be reformed to provide Jenkins with UM and UIM coverage equal to their liability coverage. 

LAW/ANALYSIS

Farm Bureau contends the trial court erred in ruling that it failed to meet its burden of proving it made a meaningful offer of UM and UIM coverage to Ronnie and Sandra Jenkins.  See Progressive Cas. Ins. Co. v. Leachman, 362 S.C. 344, 348, 608 S.E.2d 569, 571 (2005) (holding that insurer bears the burden of establishing that it made a meaningful offer).

The issues here involve making a "determination of coverage under an insurance policy, and therefore, [this] is an action at law."  Atkins v. Horace Mann Ins. Co., 376 S.C. 625, 630, 658 S.E.2d 106, 109 (Ct. App. 2008); accord Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co. v. Prioleau, 359 S.C. 238, 241, 597 S.E.2d 165, 167 (Ct. App. 2004).  In an action at law, tried without a jury, the trial court's factual findings will not be disturbed on appeal unless a review of the record reveals that there is no evidence to reasonably support the trial court's findings.  Atkins, 376 S.C. at 630, 658 S.E.2d at 109.

To meet the burden of proving a meaningful offer was made, an insurer must demonstrate compliance either with section 38-77-350 of the South Carolina Code or with the Wannamaker requirements.[1]  Farm Bureau concedes the trial court correctly ruled that it is not entitled to the conclusive presumption of statutory compliance under section 38-77-350(B).  Instead, Farm Bureau contends that the trial court erred in ruling that it failed to make a meaningful offer under Wannamaker.[2]  We disagree. 

In Wannamaker, the supreme court held that insurers must make a "meaningful offer" of UM coverage.  291 S.C. at 522, 354 S.E.2d at 557.  To satisfy this requirement:

(1) the insurer's notification process must be commercially reasonable, whether oral or in writing; (2) the insurer must specify the limits of optional coverage and not merely offer additional coverage in general terms; (3) the insurer must intelligibly advise the insured of the nature of the optional coverage; and (4) the insured must be told that optional coverages are available for an additional premium.

291 S.C. at 521, 354 S.E.2d at 556. 

After the trial court ruled that Farm Bureau was not entitled to a conclusive statutory presumption, the judge properly turned to the factual question of whether Farm Bureau made a meaningful under the Wannamaker criteria.[3]  See Grinnell Corp. v. Wood, 389 S.C. 350, 357, 357 S.E.2d 796, 799-800 (2010) (holding that even when an insurer is not entitled to the statutory presumption, the insurer may prove a meaningful offer by demonstrating compliance with Wannamaker).  The trial court reviewed the evidence and concluded that the testimony relating to whether Farm Bureau intelligibly advised the Jenkins of the nature of the UM and UIM coverage and whether Farm Bureau told the Jenkins that optional coverages are available for an additional premium was "dramatically opposed."  The trial court determined that Farm Bureau "failed to carry its burden of proof and therefore failed to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it made a meaningful offer of UM and UIM coverage to the Jenkins." 

Evidence in the record supports the trial court's finding that no meaningful offer was made.  Agent Lee testified that an insured who requests "maximum coverage" would not have received what he asked for if he only had $25,000 in UIM coverage.  He also testified about the normal procedure he follows in explaining coverage options and forms to insureds, but conceded that his only proof is the selections made on the form.  Mr. Jenkins testified that Agent Lee "did not explain to him anything regarding UIM or UM coverage.  He testified that he had never heard of uninsured or underinsured coverage until it was explained to him by his current counsel . . . ."  The trial judge's decision turns on this factual finding.  Because there is evidence in the record to support the finding, we must affirm.   

Farm Bureau relies on Atkins v. Horace Mann Insurance Co. in support of its position, but we find the case distinguishable.  376 S.C. 625, 630, 658 S.E.2d 106, 109 (Ct. App. 2008).  First, Atkins addressed an appeal from a ruling that a meaningful offer was made, while here the trial court ruled that the facts supported an opposite ruling.  376 S.C. at 629, 658 S.E.2d at 108-09.  The court concluded that the written offer present in Atkins is commercially reasonable under Wannamaker, 376 S.C. at 631, 658 S.E.2d at 109, while the issues present here concern different prongs of Wannamaker.  Second, Farm Bureau emphasizes that the court affirmed solely on the form in Atkins.  However, the entire transaction in Atkins occurred through use of the mail, whereas here, the Jenkins initially made a phone call to Farm Bureau to discuss changing their policies and then decided to go to Farm Bureau's office to discuss their options and sign the forms. 

Farm Bureau also argues that Agent Lee's testimony demonstrates that a meaningful offer was given.  As discussed above, after hearing and weighing Agent Lee's testimony, the trial court concluded that, in combination with the other evidence in the record, Farm Bureau did not satisfy its burden to prove it made a meaningful offer.  See Leachman, 362 S.C. at 348, 608 S.E.2d at 571.  This was within the trial court's discretion.  See S.C. Dep't of Transp. v. M & T Enters. of Mt. Pleasant, LLC, 379 S.C. 645, 668, n.12, 667 S.E.2d 7, 20, n.12 (Ct. App. 2008) (noting that the trier of fact is "free to accept or reject any or all of a witness's testimony").

Farm Bureau argues that the Jenkins should be bound by the documents they signed.  The trial court properly ruled that the fact that the Jenkins signed the forms is not dispositive of the case.  Although it seems contrary to basic contract principles, the law requiring meaningful offers of UM and UIM coverage has developed to protect insureds.[4]  Without a meaningful offer, there can be no operative acceptance.  As the trial court explained:

[O]ur courts have carved out a rule to the effect that a detailed acknowledgment that reflects detailed information, crucial to a fair contractual relation between the insured and the insurer, is valueless. . . . [T]he law in this instance diminishes the value of one's signature and places absolutely no responsibility on one to watch out for their own interest and be held to their written statements . . . .

AFFIRMED.

SHORT and WILLIAMS, JJ., concur.


[1] S.C. Code Ann. § 38-77-350 (2002); State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Wannamaker, 291 S.C. 518, 521, 354 S.E.2d 555, 556 (1987).

[2] Farm Bureau posits that despite not being entitled to a conclusive presumption under subsection 38-77-350(B), it can demonstrate that a meaningful offer was made under 38-77-350(A) by analyzing the elements of the blank form.  While the elements included and structure of the form are certainly a component of the meaningful offer analysis, the form must be considered in the context of how it is executed. 

[3]  Farm Bureau also contends that the trial court erred "in ending its analysis" at the point it determined Farm Bureau is not entitled to a conclusive presumption under the statute.  We do not read the order to conclude its analysis prematurely. 

[4] The scenario this case presents would not have the same result now.  Under the amended 38-77-350(A), the insurer is now permitted to fill out the forms on behalf of the insured as long as the insured signs the form.