The Truth About the Geico HPV Case
This past weekend, a friend of mine told me a fantastical story about Geico Insurance Company being ordered to pay more than $5 million to a lady who had contracted the HPV virus in a car insured by Geico. I told him that the story must be apocryphal. Interested in whether the story had any merit, I conducted a quick Google search and found at least 100 articles from different “news” organizations claiming that Geico had been ordered to pay the lady $5.2 million by a court in Missouri. I then also heard the same claim being made by Trevor Noah on his talk show. Being extremely skeptical about these claims based on my experience in personal injury actions, I decided to conduct some research. The following is what I discovered. .
In 2017, two adults, identified as M.O. and M.B. in the legal actions, engaged in consensual sexual intercourse in M.B.’s vehicle, which was insured by Geico. M.G. also possessed an umbrella liability policy with Geico. Unknown to M.O., M.B. had been previously diagnosed with Human Papillomavirus (HPV), a fact he did not disclose to M.O., who was later diagnosed with HPV. M.O. sought compensation from M.B. for causing her to contract this contagious, and sometimes deadly, disease.
Since M.B.’s policies with Geico provided coverage to M.B. for injuries that arose out of the “use” of M.B’s vehicle, M.O. attempted to settle her claim against M.B. within the monetary limits of the policy of $1 million. Geico refused to engage in settlement discussions with M.O. As such, she informed Geico that she intended to file a legal action against M.B. for her injuries. Geico then refused to either indemnify M.B. or to even provide a defense for him.
While I am unfamiliar with the specific law in Missouri, most states require people who have been diagnosed with an STD to disclose that fact to any sexual partner. In fact, in Ohio, failing to disclose an STD diagnosis to a sexual partner is a crime, either as a misdemeanor or a felony offense if the STD is HIV. Further, a person who fails to disclose his/her STD diagnosis can also be held liable for monetary damages in a civil action, which is what we have in this case.
The Legal Actions
Apparently in Missouri, parties to a civil case can submit the entire matter to arbitration and agree to be bound by that decision, which the parties did in this case. Just as in a trial before a jury or judge, the parties are given an equal opportunity to submit evidence in the form of testimony from witnesses and physical exhibits, and to make arguments in support of their case. Although Geico was made aware of this process, it chose not to get involved and not to hire an attorney to represent M.B. In my experience, insurance companies almost always hire an attorney to represent their insured if there is even the slightest possibility that it may need to extend coverage to its insured. Geico simply decided to take that risk in this case.
The case eventually proceeded to an arbitration hearing, during which both parties were afforded the opportunity to submit evidence. At the conclusion of the hearing, the arbitrator awarded M.O. $5.2 million for her damages. A Missouri court later adopted that award and issued a judgment against M.B, not against Geico. While Geico attempted to intervene in the action following the arbitration decision, the Missouri court found that Geico was given the opportunity to participate and defend M.B. at the arbitration and simply chose not do so, and as such, dismissed it from the case. A Missouri Appellate Court affirmed that decision.
At around the same time as the arbitration hearing, Geico filed an action in federal court seeking a declaration that it was not obligated to extend coverage to M.B. As of the date of this article, that action is still pending; however, many news organizations have falsely reported that Geico has been ordered to pay M.O. $5.2 million. That is simply not true. The issue of coverage is yet to be decided, but that has not stopped Geico’s public relations department from misinforming and misleading the public into believing that it has been ordered to pay the award. Based on my reading of the pleadings filed in the case, I believe that M.O. will likely have a difficult time convincing the court that coverage should be extended to M.B., in which case, she would receive none of the $5.2 million award. Further, barring some extraordinary circumstances, Geico’s overall exposure is likely limited to the $1 million policy limit. So, even if the federal court determines that Geico must indemnify M.B., $4.2 million of the award will likely go unpaid.
I am disappointed in the failure of many journalists to accurately report the facts of this case, and to once again spread false information about the legal system, especially relating to tort cases. But then again, accurately reporting the facts is not good business for many “news” organizations, especially those in the conservative media that care little about the facts. The attorneys at Plymale & Dingus care about the truth and about protecting the rights of injury victims. While insurance companies have the resources to spend millions of dollars on misinformation campaigns, individual injury victims lack those same resources. I hope that this article serves, in even a small way, to combat that effort.