Burgess v. Porterfield, 22956

CourtSupreme Court of West Virginia
Citation196 W.Va. 178,469 S.E.2d 114
Decision Date11 March 1996
Docket NumberNo. 22956,22956
PartiesBillie BURGESS, Plaintiff Below, Appellee, v. Mark PORTERFIELD, Defendant Below, Appellee. STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff Below, Appellant, v. SUPERAMERICA GROUP, INC., d.b.a. SuperAmerica Corporation, Third-Party Defendant Below, Appellee.

Syllabus by the Court

1. Defendants in a civil action against whom awards of compensatory and punitive damages are rendered are entitled to a reduction of the compensatory damage award, but not the punitive damage award, by the amount of any good faith settlements previously made with the plaintiff by other jointly liable parties.

2. " 'The question of whether an insured has substantially prevailed against his insurance company on a property damage claim is determined by the status of negotiations between the insured and the insurer prior to the institution of the law suit. Where the insurance company has offered an amount materially below the damage estimates submitted by the insured, and the jury awards the insured an amount approximating the insured's damages, the insured has substantially prevailed.' Syl. pt. 2, Thomas v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 181 W.Va. 604, 383 S.E.2d 786 (1989)." Syl. pt. 1, Hadorn v. Shea, 193 W.Va. 350, 456 S.E.2d 194 (1995).

3. " 'An insured "substantially prevails" in a property damage action against his or her insurer when the action is settled for an amount equal to or approximating the amount claimed by the insured immediately prior to the commencement of the action, as well as when the action is concluded by a jury verdict for such an amount. In either of these situations the insured is entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees from his or her insurer, as long as the attorney's services were necessary to obtain payment of the insurance proceeds.' Syl. pt. 1, Jordan v. Nat'l Grange Mut. Ins. Co., 183 W.Va. 9, 393 S.E.2d 647 (1990)." Syl. pt. 2, Hadorn v. Shea, 193 W.Va. 350, 456 S.E.2d 194 (1995).

4. This Court reviews the circuit court's final order and ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard. We review challenges to findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kanawha County; Honorable Herman G. Canady, Jr., Judge, Civil Action No. 90-C-717. Joanna I. Tabit, Mark E. Kinley, Steptoe & Johnson, Charleston, for Mark Porterfield & State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company.

David L. Wyant, Shaun L. Peck, Shuman, Annand & Poe, Charleston, for Billie Burgess.

McHUGH, Chief Justice:

State Farm Mutual Insurance Company, appearing on behalf of and in the name of defendant Mark Porterfield, 1 appeals a November 2, 1994 order in which the Circuit Court of Kanawha County directed that the amount of the pretrial settlement received by plaintiff Billie Burgess be credited to the compensatory damage award but not to the punitive damages awarded against defendant Porterfield. State Farm also appeals a December 22, 1994 order in which the circuit court awarded plaintiff attorney's fees and costs because she was required to litigate her uninsured motorist claim with State Farm, her insurer, and because she "substantially prevailed" at trial. This Court has before it the petition for appeal, all matters of record and the briefs and arguments of counsel. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the orders of the circuit court.


On or about December 22, 1988, plaintiff Billie Burgess was injured when the automobile in which she was a passenger was struck by a vehicle driven by defendant Mark Porterfield, an uninsured motorist. At the time of the accident, plaintiff carried automobile insurance with defendant State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company (hereinafter "State Farm"), including uninsured motorist coverage in the amount of $100,000 per person.

On February 22, 1990, plaintiff instituted an action in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County for both actual and punitive damages against defendant Porterfield, alleging that he "negligently, carelessly, wantonly and maliciously operated [an automobile] owned by his mother Norma Porterfield 2 in such a manner that it collided with [an automobile] owned and operated by B. Gregory Foutty, in which plaintiff was a passenger, and proximately caused the plaintiff's injuries." (footnote added). Plaintiff further alleged that defendant Porterfield "was operating said motor vehicle while unable and incompetent to control [it] due to the fact that he was under the influence of alcohol[.]"

On December 14, 1990, plaintiff instituted a separate action for both actual and punitive damages against SuperAmerica Group, Inc., doing business as SuperAmerica, a corporation (hereinafter "SuperAmerica"), alleging that it "sold intoxicating beverages to [defendant] Porterfield at a time when [SuperAmerica] knew or should have known that [defendant] Porterfield was physically incapacitated from drinking[,]" and that in selling intoxicating beverages to defendant Porterfield "while he was obviously operating a motor vehicle and was obviously physically incapacitated," SuperAmerica acted "in reckless and wanton disregard of the safety and well-being of motorists, passengers and pedestrians on the streets and highways, including said plaintiff."

After defendant Porterfield brought a third-party complaint 3 against SuperAmerica, plaintiff was granted leave to amend her complaint so as to bring a direct action against SuperAmerica. 4 Plaintiff's amended complaint alleged the same theories as the original complaints and demanded from both defendants actual and punitive damages.

Plaintiff subsequently entered into a release and settlement agreement with SuperAmerica in which plaintiff, in exchange for the sum of $150,000, agreed, inter alia, to release SuperAmerica "of and from any and all claims, demands, actions, causes of action, liability expenses and damages of every kind and character" in any way related to the above-described accident. The agreement expressly released SuperAmerica "of all claims arising out of or alleged in any manner to have been caused by intentional, deliberate, willful, unreasonable, abusive, wanton and/or reckless misconduct" on the part of SuperAmerica. By order dated June 1, 1993, the circuit court approved the release and settlement agreement as fair and reasonable, having been entered into by the parties in good faith. Accordingly, plaintiff's complaint against SuperAmerica was dismissed with prejudice. 5

Prior to trial, the remaining parties, plaintiff and defendant Porterfield, stipulated that defendant Porterfield would be entitled to offset $201,427.42 against whatever damages, if any, the jury awarded. This figure represented the total payments already received by plaintiff: $150,000 settlement from SuperAmerica; $25,000 uninsured motorist coverage (the policy limits) under the State Farm policy covering B. Gregory Foutty, the driver of the car in which plaintiff was a passenger at the time of the accident; and $26,427.42, received pursuant to the medical payments benefit portions of the insurance policies owned by both plaintiff and driver Foutty.

Following a three-day trial on damages only, 6 plaintiff was awarded $136,270.57 in compensatory damages and $137,000 in punitive damages, for a total damage award of $273,270.57. According to State Farm, it immediately paid to plaintiff $71,843.15, or the difference between the total damage award of $273,270.57 and $201,427.42, the sum previously stipulated by the parties as a credit against the jury award. However, in an order entered November 2, 1994, the circuit court concluded that the $201,427.42 in settlement monies should be credited against the $136,270.57 compensatory damage award, completely extinguishing that award; however, the court refused to credit the settlement monies against the $137,000 punitive damage award.

Subsequently, in an order entered December 22, 1994, the circuit court, citing this Court's decision in Marshall v. Saseen, 192 W.Va. 94, 450 S.E.2d 791 (1994), awarded plaintiff the sum of $28,156.85, the difference between plaintiff's policy limits of $100,000 and $71,843.15, the amount previously tendered to plaintiff by State Farm. 7

Also in the December 22, 1994 order, the circuit court ruled on plaintiff's motion for attorney's fees and costs. State Farm had argued, in response to plaintiff's motion, that it had attempted to negotiate settlement of plaintiff's claim against defendant Porterfield upon execution of the settlement and release agreement between plaintiff and SuperAmerica. Despite State Farm's contention that plaintiff would accept no settlement less than the $100,000 policy limits, the circuit court determined that the plaintiff was entitled to attorney's fees and costs because she was required to litigate her uninsured motorist claim against State Farm, her own insurer, to recover amounts under her policy and because she substantially prevailed at trial. Accordingly, the court awarded plaintiff $33,333.33 in attorney's fees, or one-third of the face amount of plaintiff's uninsured motorists coverage, plus $3,305 in costs.

It is from these orders that State Farm now appeals.


As indicated above, the parties agreed, prior to trial, that the jury award would be reduced by $201,427.42, an amount previously paid to plaintiff in settlement and medical payment benefits (hereinafter "pretrial settlement"). Following the jury verdict, however, the circuit court offset only the $136,270.57 compensatory damage award, allowing the $137,000 punitive damage award to stand. Though this Court has never addressed this issue, the circuit court, in refusing to offset the pretrial settlement against the punitive damage award, followed the view of the clear majority of jurisdictions.


The parties agree with...

To continue reading

Request your trial
240 cases
  • Gum v. Dudley, 23845.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • 8 Diciembre 1997
    ...to findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo." Syl. Pt. 4, Burgess v. Porterfield, 196 W.Va. 178, 469 S.E.2d 114 III. DISCUSSION A. Failure to Disclose the Settlement Agreement: Its Impact on the Trial Mrs. Gum contends that our decision in......
  • State ex rel. Hechler v. Christian Action Network, 23573
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • 16 Julio 1997
    ...to findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo." Syl. pt. 4, Burgess v. Porterfield, 196 W.Va. 178, 469 S.E.2d 114 2. "A statute that is ambiguous must be construed before it can be applied." Syl. pt. 1, Farley v. Buckalew, 186 W.Va. 693, 414......
  • Mountain America, LLC v. Huffman
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • 25 Noviembre 2009
    ...findings of fact under a clearly erroneous standard; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo.' Syllabus Point 4, Burgess v. Porterfield, 196 W.Va. 178, 469 S.E.2d 114 (1996)." Syllabus Point 1, In re: Tax Assessment of Foster Foundation's Woodlands Retirement Community, 223 W.Va. 14, 672 S.......
  • Michael D.C. v. Wanda L.C., 23937
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of West Virginia
    • 24 Octubre 1997
    ...and questions of law and statutory interpretations are subject to a de novo review. See also Syl. Pt. 4, Burgess v. Porterfield, 196 W.Va. 178, 469 S.E.2d 114 (1996) ("This Court reviews the circuit court's final order and ultimate disposition under an abuse of discretion standard. We revie......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT