“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy wrote a 2-1 decision that affirmed the dismissal of a consumer class action claim against an insurance company without even allowing any discovery, harming consumers. The May 2021 ruling was in Wilkerson v American Fam. Ins. Co.
Nanika Wilkerson suffered a “total loss” to her car in an accident, and asked her insurance company to pay her the “actual cash value” of the car as provided in her insurance policy with American Family Ins. Co. The company claimed, however, that this did not include the taxes and fees she would be required to pay to obtain a replacement, as it has done with respect to many other Ohio consumers. Wilkerson filed a class action against the insurer on behalf of herself and other similarly situated consumers to recover these costs.
Without even allowing any discovery or a trial, however, a district court dismissed the complaint as a matter of law. On appeal, Trump judge Murphy agreed, claiming that the meaning of “actual cash value” was “clear and unambiguous” and that it “unambiguously excludes” taxes and fees. According to Murphy, the company’s interpretation was “the only reasonable one” under Ohio law and the lower court was right to dismiss the complaint.
Judge Bernice Donald firmly dissented. She pointed out that “actual cash value” was not and could have been defined in the policy, and that both Ohio courts and other law indicate that consumers like Ms. Wilkerson “may be eligible for a reimbursement of sales taxes” and fees “for her ‘total loss’ vehicle.” Ms. Wilkerson’s interpretation was thus a “reasonable one,” Judge Donald went on, and she should have been allowed to develop and present evidence concerning the meaning of the term, rather than having the case dismissed at such an early stage. This was particularly true, Donald noted, because the law is clear that where a term in an insurance policy has more than one possible meaning, such ambiguity should be interpreted in favor of the consumer and “against the insurer.” She also pointed to a number of previous decisions that indicated that sales taxes and fees could be included in “total loss” cases.
As a result of Trump judge Murphy’s decision, however, Nanika Wilkerson will not have the opportunity to prove that the amount paid by the insurance company for the total loss of her car should have included hundreds of dollars in taxes and fees that she will need to pay to replace her car, as well as to provide similar relief to thousands of other consumers. This case is yet another example of the pro-corporate and anti-consumer harm caused by Trump judges, and reinforces the importance of prompt confirmation of judges nominated by President Biden in our fight for our courts.