Edmore family rejoices after civil trial verdict against insurance company

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 10:13 am on Thursday, June 07, 2012

Branden Peterman discusses his three-and-a-half-year ordeal with Auto Owners Insurance after Wednesday’s verdict in favor of Peterman was read. His wife, Carrie, and family members look on in the hallway outside 8th Judicial Circuit Court. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

STANTON — The Peterman family has had some dark moments over the past three and a half years, but they never stopped believing they were fighting for the right cause.

The Edmore family of five was vindicated Wednesday when a jury found Branden Peterman had not misrepresented himself on a disability insurance policy application — a claim Auto Owners Insurance had alleged.

As the verdict was read aloud, Carrie Peterman began crying tears of relief — a brief crack in the calm, confident outward appearance she had projected throughout the two-day trial.

“We never lost faith,” she said. “We knew God would get us through. I just feel such a burden lifted. This ruling helped us stand up for what’s right when Branden couldn’t stand up at all.”

Branden Peterman was permanently paralyzed from the waist down in a logging accident on Dec. 12, 2008, just four days after Carrie gave birth to the couple’s third child.

Carrie Peterman begins crying in relief as a jury reads a verdict in favor of her husband. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

Branden Peterman had applied for disability insurance and life insurance just months earlier in July 2008. Both policies were granted by Auto Owners Insurance in August 2008.

The insurance company granted Peterman’s life insurance claim after the accident, agreeing to pay his life insurance premiums for the next 30 years. However, the insurance company revoked Peterman’s disability insurance policy after the accident, claiming he had misrepresented his medical history on the policy application by not including three visits to a chiropractor.

Auto Owners Insurance would have paid Peterman $1,500 per month for two years for a total of $36,000 had the disability claim been granted, according to the policy.

The Petermans brought a civil lawsuit against Auto Owners Insurance in 2009. The trial started Tuesday in 8th Judicial Circuit Court after several years of legal technicalities.

A jury of four men and two women heard testimony from Branden and Carrie Peterman, Beth Bedaine, a manager of life and disability insurance underwriting services for Auto Owners Insurance, and Dr. Gerald Halsey, an Edmore chiropractor who saw Branden Peterman three times in 2007 and 2008.

The question the jury had to answer was, “Did Branden Peterman made a misrepresentation in his application for insurance coverage?”

The jury spent little more than an hour deliberating. They also asked Judge David Hoort to give them a layman’s definition of the term “treatment.” Auto Owners Insurance alleged the chiropractor had “treated” Branden Peterman for an issue related to his spine. Branden Peterman said he went to see the chiropractor at his wife’s urging due to some numbness in his hands after using a chainsaw.

The judge did not give the jury a specific definition for “treatment,” but encouraged them to use their common sense. They did, returning with a verdict in Peterman’s favor.

“I’m just relieved,” Branden Peterman said. “We knew all along that we didn’t try to lie on anything. We spent a fortune (on legal fees) when we were right all along. It’s been stressful.”

“It’s just sad that we had to fight this three and a half years,” added Carrie Peterman. “We’ve had to go through a lot of change.”

The judge will determine the financial amount Auto Owners Insurance must pay the Petermans at a future court hearing. Any damages or reimbursement for legal fees will also be determined at that hearing.

The Petermans plan to finish building their house now. They started building a new home in 2009 so Branden Peterman could function indoors in his motorized wheelchair, but Chemical Bank put a stop to a loan to the couple after Auto Owners Insurance revoked Peterman’s disability insurance policy. The Petermans had already put about $100,000 into the new home.

Branden and Carrie Peterman credit the assistance of countless church and community members who donated their time and money over the years as the Petermans struggled to put food on the table for their three children, Addisen, 11, Darby, 7, and Esten, 3, and fight the issue in court. The family  published a book about their experience, “A Logger’s Nightmare: Accident Forever Changes Family,” copies of which are available for purchase from the family.

Branden Peterman’s attorney, Todd Knecht of Grand Rapids, said he was “fairly confident” of a good outcome to the trial when it began.

“I felt like the jury would realize that those visits to the chiropractor were inconsequential,” he said. “We had a great jury. They were very attentive. I felt like from the beginning we had a very good case.”

Auto Owners Insurance attorney Curtis Hadley of East Lansing could not be reached for comment after the trial. However, he personally wished the Peterman family the best as he exited the courtroom.

Attorney Todd Knecht, far right, meets with Branden Peterman, far left in wheelchair, Carrie Peterman, center, and other family members after a civil trial against Auto Owners Insurance concluded Wednesday afternoon. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

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