Civil trial under way after Edmore man was involved in 2008 logging accident

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 11:27 am on Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Branden Peterman watches from his wheelchair as his wife, Carrie, testifies Tuesday in a civil trial against Auto Owners Insurance. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

STANTON — The Peterman family’s life was forever changed on Dec. 12, 2008.

On that day, Branden Peterman, then 34 years old, was crushed by a tree in a logging accident and immediately paralyzed from the waist down.

His wife, Carrie, had just given birth to their third child four days earlier.

The Edmore man had applied for and been granted disability insurance and life insurance just months earlier. However, Auto Owners Insurance rescinded Peterman’s disability insurance after the logging accident, claiming he misrepresented his medical history on his insurance application.

Branden Peterman is contesting the claim made by Auto Owners Insurance. The issue went to 8th Judicial Circuit Court for a civil trial, where a jury of five men and two women heard arguments Tuesday. The trial will resume this morning.

“This is really a very simple case, a very small case that has do to with a very simple insurance policy,” said Peterman’s attorney, Todd Knecht of Grand Rapids.

“This case is not about accusing Mr. Peterman of lying or defrauding an insurance company, but it is a false representation and that’s a misrepresentation,” argued Auto Owners Insurance attorney Curtis Hadley of East Lansing.

Branden Peterman watches from his wheelchair as his wife, Carrie, and attorney, Todd Knecht, discuss an issue at Tuesday’s civil trial against Auto Owners Insurance. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Branden Peterman met his wife at Federal-Mogul, where he worked from 1994 to 2000. In 2000, he began farming in the Edmore area. He also started a small logging business, in addition to his duties as assistant fire chief for Day Township. Branden Peterman had the opportunity to purchase the family farm in 2008. He and his wife were expecting their third child that year. Even though he was a self-described healthy man, he decided to apply for disability insurance and life insurance through Auto Owners Insurance to help plan for his family’s future.

“The only time I recall going to the doctor was for poison ivy,” he testified Tuesday.

Branden Peterman applied for disability and life insurance on July 11, 2008. Both policies were granted on Aug. 4, 2008.

Five months later, Branden Peterman was permanently paralyzed in a logging accident by an ironwood tree — four days after his son’s birth.

“That week, we went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows,” Branden Peterman testified.

Carrie Peterman immediately submitted an insurance claim for her husband, who was the family’s sole breadwinner. The life insurance claim was granted, meaning Auto Owners Insurance would pay Branden Peterman’s life insurance premiums for the next 30 years.

However, the disability claim was not granted.

Auto Owners Insurance sent a letter to Branden Peterman on March 31, 2009, stating his disability policy was being revoked. According to Auto Owners Insurance, Branden Peterman failed to mention his three visits to a chiropractor on the portion of his insurance application that asked whether he had ever received any treatment for arthritis, back problems or any disorder of the spine, muscles, joints or bones.

“I distinctly remember it because it was April Fool’s Day,” testified Carrie Peterman of receiving the letter. “I read the letter and thought it must be a joke. How could three visits to the chiropractor constitute a denial of disability insurance?”

Branden Peterman visited Dr. Gerald Halsey’s chiropractic practice in Edmore three times — Nov. 5, 2007, March 17, 2008, and May 29, 2008.

“I never had any pain or reason I should go see him,” Branden Peterman testified. “My wife thought I should go because of the tingling in my hands (from using a chainsaw).”

Halsey testified that Branden Peterman said his hands were numb at the first chiropractic visit. Halsey determined he had a misaligned spine and treated his cervic, mid-back and pelvic spinal area. Branden Peterman returned to Halsey two more times and was treated the same way again. He complained of some neck pain from driving at one visit.

Beth Bedaine, manager of life and disability insurance underwriting services for Auto Owners Insurance, testified that if Branden Peterman had stated on his insurance application that he had been treated by a chiropractor for spinal-related issues, she would have ordered his medical records from the chiropractor and put an exclusion on his disability policy.

“We relied on the statement on the application that said ‘no,’” Bedaine said. “I determined that there was a material misrepresentation.”

As a result of Branden Peterman’s disability insurance being revoked, Chemical Bank withdrew a  loan to the Peterman family, who was in the process of building a barrier-free home for Branden Peterman to live in with his wheelchair. The family had already spent about $100,000 on the project when the loan was suddenly halted.

The Petermans published a book about their experience, “A Logger’s Nightmare: Accident Forever Changes Family.”

The three Peterman children, Addisen, 11, Darby, 7, and Esten, 3, sat with Carrie Peterman in the courtroom during part of Tuesday’s trial. About a dozen supporters also attended the trial on behalf of the family.

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