Ernest B. Ogle and Patricia Evans appeal from the denial of their motion for new trial after the trial court entered judgment on a directed verdict in favor of Preferred Risk Mutual Insurance Company on Ogle and Evans's claim, following an automobile accident in Etowah County, against Preferred Risk for payment of uninsured motorist benefits.
Ogle, while driving an automobile owned by his common-law wife Evans (who was a passenger), collided with a tractor-trailer truck driven by Jeffrey K. Long on U.S. Highway 431 near Attalla. After filing a complaint in circuit court against Long and
Preferred Risk moved to intervene in the lawsuit and to set aside the default judgment after Evans notified it of her intention to file a claim for uninsured motorist coverage under the terms of her insurance policy. The trial court granted Preferred Risk's motion, set aside the default judgment, and joined Preferred Risk as a party defendant. On October 21, 1987, Preferred Risk filed its cross-claim against Long, demanding judgment for any amount recovered against it by Ogle and Evans; service was attempted at Long's Stantonville, Tennessee, post office box (the record does not indicate whether this service was successful.) After discovery, the lawsuit moved to trial on April 4, 1988, without Long appearing.
At the close of plaintiffs' evidence, Preferred Risk moved for a directed verdict on grounds that Ogle and Evans had failed to prove that Long was uninsured at the time of the accident. The trial court denied the motion before hearing Preferred Risk's evidence, but granted the motion when it was renewed by Preferred Risk at the close of the evidence, and after hearing argument from both parties. Ogle and Evans's motion for new trial, based on grounds that evidence existed to infer that Long was uninsured at the time of the accident, was denied. The issue for our review is whether the trial court properly denied the motion for new trial after entering judgment on a directed verdict for Preferred Risk.
Although Ogle and Evans challenge by motion for new trial the weight of the evidence as considered by the trial court in making its determination that they failed to prove Long's status as uninsured, we must return to the directed verdict to test the sufficiency of the evidence surrounding Long's status. The standard of appellate review applicable to a motion for directed verdict is identical to the standard used by the trial court in granting or denying the motion initially. Thus, when reviewing the trial court's ruling on the motion, we determine whether there was sufficient evidence to produce a conflict warranting jury consideration. And, like the trial court, we must view any evidence most favorably to the nonmovant. Bussey v. John Deere Co., 531 So.2d 860 (Ala.1988).
The threshold question is who—Ogle and Evans or Preferred Risk—bore the burden of proving the uninsured status of Long. Preferred Risk argues that the burden of proof lies with Ogle and Evans, and that they failed to present any evidence of Long's status; Ogle and Evans argue that the cumulative effect of Long's failure to answer the complaint, to respond to discovery, and to appear for trial; their attempts to investigate Long's status as uninsured; and Preferred Risk's failure to present any evidence contradicting their allegation that Long was uninsured, raise a presumption of uninsured status that Preferred Risk must rebut.
Although Ala.Code 1975, § 32-7-23 ("Uninsured motorist coverage; `uninsured motorist' defined; limitation on recovery") is silent on this point, the plaintiff generally has the burden of proving that the tort-feasor was uninsured. Appleman, Insurance Law and Practice § 5087 (1981). This burden of proof is recognized in Alabama. Barnes v. Tarver, 360 So.2d 953 (Ala.1978) ("[e]very jurisdiction which has considered the issue holds that the burden of proving entitlement to coverage under an uninsured motorist endorsement is upon the claimant"). (Citations omitted.) See, also, Lefeve v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 527 F.Supp. 492 (N.D.Ala.1981) ("It is clear that a party making a claim for uninsured motorist coverage must prove that the vehicle which injured him was in fact uninsured. See generally, Annot., 26 A.L. R.3d 883, 892 (1969)").
An exception is recognized, however, if the plaintiff used reasonable diligence to
Consequently, our review shifts to the question of what actions constitute "reasonable diligence" by the insured to ascertain the insured status of the tort-feasor:
Appleman, Insurance Law and Practice §§ 5087.15, 5087.25, and 5087.35 (1981).
The record reflects that Ogle and Evans unsuccessfully attempted to serve Long at a Stantonville, Tennessee, post office box and took a default judgment against him after he failed to answer the complaint following service by publication. It appears from the record that after intervention by Preferred Risk and the focusing of the lawsuit on the insured status of Long, Ogle and Evans undertook no further investigation of Long to determine his status. In fact, at trial, counsel for Ogle and Evans argued, "[I]f [Long] will not respond to my lawsuit, I certainly can't take his deposition. That ends my responsibility. All I have got to do is file my lawsuit and wait for his response, or his carrier's response. And in that I had the request for admissions, `Are you insured?' It was ignored as well."
We do not believe that merely filing the lawsuit and taking a default judgment against the tort-feasor after he fails to answer the complaint and respond to discovery is sufficient to demonstrate "reasonable diligence" in ascertaining and proving the tort-feasor's status as uninsured. The claimant must go further to meet his burden. For example, in State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Griffin, supra, the Court of Civil Appeals held that testimony by the insurer's adjuster that he investigated the collision involving the plaintiff's vehicle and did not find a policy of liability insurance in force on the defendant's vehicle was sufficient to provide a scintilla of evidence on the defendant's status as uninsured. Our record in the instant case reflects that Ogle and Evans failed to call Preferred Risk's adjuster to testify as to his investigation of Long's status.
Further, Ogle and Evans developed testimony at trial that Long, at the scene
Therefore, viewing the evidence most favorably to them, we hold that Ogle and Evans failed to produce any evidence of a reasonably diligent investigation sufficient to raise a presumption that Long was uninsured and to cast upon Preferred Risk the burden of going forward with the evidence. Thus, insufficient evidence existed to produce a conflict warranting jury consideration. Further, we hold that the trial court was not in error in refusing to consider as newly discovered evidence an affidavit from Harco National in support of Ogle and Evans's motion for new trial. With any amount of diligence, the affidavit could have been procured and produced during the trial of the lawsuit, and Ogle and Evans fail to demonstrate that the trial court abused its discretion in its ruling. Beaty v. Head Springs Cemetery Ass'n, Inc., 413 So.2d 1126 (Ala.1982).
MADDOX, ALMON, HOUSTON and STEAGALL, JJ., concur.
HORNSBY, C.J., and JONES, SHORES and KENNEDY, JJ., dissent.
HORNSBY, Chief Justice (dissenting).
The standard of review for a directed verdict is:
Caterpillar Tractor Co. v. Ford, 406 So.2d 854, 856 (Ala.1981). See also Ritch v. Waldrop, 428 So.2d 1 (Ala.1982). The plaintiffs were required to submit a scintilla of evidence in support of their claim that the tort-feasor was not insured.
"`Since the absence of insurance upon the offending vehicle and its driver is a condition precedent to the applicability of the uninsured driver indorsement, we hold that the burden of proving such absence is upon the claimant. However, we must keep in mind that proving a negative is always difficult and frequently impossible and that, consequently, the quantum of proof must merely be such as will convince the trier of the facts that all reasonable efforts have been made to ascertain the existence of an applicable policy and that such efforts have proven fruitless. In such an event, and absent any affirmative proof by petitioner, the inference may be drawn that there is in fact no insurance policy in force which is applicable." (pp. 362, 363, 288 N.Y.S.2d p. 825).'"
Van Hoozer v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 219 Kan. 595, 611-12, 549 P.2d 1354, 1367 (1976); Appleman, Insurance Law and Practice, § 5087 (1981); Annot., Insurance—"Uninsured" Motorist, 26 A.L.R.3d 883 (1969).
I believe that the plaintiffs met their burden and presented sufficient evidence to take the case to the jury.
In summary, I believe that the plaintiffs presented sufficient evidence to withstand the defendant's motion for a directed verdict.
JONES, SHORES and KENNEDY, JJ., concur.