Georgia Court of Appeal Reverses in Automobile Insurance Forgery Case

Although those seeking insurance coverage are typically prepared to sign a variety of different forms in order to finalize their agreements, very few would expect someone else to unknowingly sign a few more after they are done. However, this peculiar situation is at the heart of the facts of a recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Assaf v. Cincinnati Insurance Company. In Assaf, the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed a trial’s court grant of summary judgment in favor of an insurance provider when evidence suggested an intermediary insurance agent might have forged certain forms.
Assaf began with a motor vehicle accident on August 10, 2009. On that day, a car being driven by an uninsured motorist struck the plaintiff in this case while he was walking alongside a road. Following the accident, the plaintiff brought a personal injury suit against the uninsured motorist in the State Court of Fulton County and also served his personal uninsured motor vehicle insurer, Cincinnati Insurance Company. Cincinnati answered and asserted a crossclaim against the uninsured motorist. Afterward, the plaintiff amended his complaint to assert a breach of contract claim against Cincinnati, since the insurer now refused to provide the one million dollars in uninsured motorist coverage to which he believed he was entitled.
In 2008, the plaintiff applied to Cincinnati for automobile liability insurance and a personal liability umbrella policy through Little and Smith, Inc., an insurance agency. Cincinnati issued the policy, but this policy did not include excess uninsured motorist insurance coverage, which the plaintiff testified he had requested in a conversation with an agent for Little and Smith. However, the policy terms were consistent with the application that had been submitted to Cincinnati by Little and Smith, since the application included a form purportedly signed by the plaintiff that waived excess uninsured motorist coverage. However, the plaintiff testified that he never initialed or signed that form and contended that his signature must have been forged by the agent from Little and Smith, who had been asked to resign from Little and Smith because, for among other reasons, she had signed another insured’s name to a policy cancellation without the insured’s consent. Despite issues regarding the authenticity of the signature, the trial court nonetheless granted summary judgment to Cincinnati on the breach of contract claim. On appeal, the plaintiff contended that the trial court’s grant of summary judgment was in error, since there existed issues of material fact regarding both the authenticity of his signature and whether the Little and Smith employee was functioning as a dual agent under the circumstances. The Court of Appeals agreed.

First, pursuant to Georgia law, unless there is a written waiver, all automobile insurance contracts are presumed to include uninsured motorist coverage equal to the policy’s overall liability limits, whether or not the contract purports to exclude those benefits. See O.C.G.A. § 33-7-11 (a) (1), (3) (2008). Thus, unless the form was actually signed by the plaintiff, his policy was presumed to include, by operation of law, excess uninsured motorist coverage. That notwithstanding, Cincinnati argued that even if the signature was forged, it was allowed to rely on the representations of the Little and Smith representative and thus could not be found contractually liable. However, the Court of Appeals found that there were issues of material fact as to whether the Little and Smith representative was a dual agent, a fact to which Cincinnati had stipulated as true for purposes of the summary judgment motion. Under Georgia law, “[t]he principal shall be bound by all representations made by his agent in the business of his agency and also by his willful concealment of material facts, although they are unknown to the principal and known only by the agent.” O.C.G.A. § 10-6-56. Although principals are generally not liable to each other based on torts committed by a dual agent, equitable principles will make the a principal responsible to another principal in a contractual action when the other principal detrimentally relies on a misrepresentation of a dual agent. Home Materials, Inc. v. Auto Owners Ins. Co., 250 Ga. 599, 603 (2) (300 SE2d 139) (1983). Accordingly, since there were triable issues of material fact regarding whether the Little and Smith agent was functioning as a dual agent and, consequently, could bind Cincinnati in contract, it was inappropriate to grant summary judgment. Finally, although Cincinnati also argued that the plaintiff’s failure to review the final insurance forms barred him from making a claim for the coverage, the Court of Appeals reiterated that unless the uninsured motorist benefits were waived by the plaintiff those benefits were presumed to be included by operation of law, whether or not the contract’s text purported to exclude those benefits. See Flewellen v. Atlanta Cas. Co., 250 Ga. 709, 714 (300 SE2d 673) (1983).
Although the plaintiff obtained victory on this appeal, he will still need to prove the purported forgery and his entitlement to uninsured motorist benefits to a jury. Litigation involving even the most seemingly straightforward motor vehicle accidents can be an involved undertaking that requires, in many cases, wrangling with both personal and third-party insurance providers. Accordingly, if you’ve been injured in an Atlanta motor vehicle accident, you should consider getting legal representation from counsel experienced in motor vehicle accident litigation. The Atlanta motor vehicle accident lawyers at the Law Office of Terrence R. Bethune have numerous years of experience handling local motor vehicle cases and can offer you the necessary legal guidance. Please feel free to contact us for a free case evaluation.

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