Car Insurance Fraud Case Overturned in Poetic Fashion

John Egan

The language of car insurance can be pretty dry. So can the language of the courts. A judge in Pennsylvania has managed to spice up both.

Bard of the Bench: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin.

In what you might call a case of poetic justice, Justice J. Michael Eakin of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court authored an opinion about a car insurance fraud conviction entirely in rhyming fashion.

In a six-page ruling issued Dec. 21, Eakin overturned the fraud conviction of Daniel Goodson III, but not without a heavy dose of literary flair. Eakin is known for waxing poetic in court opinions -- something that has drawn criticism from other judges.

The court ruled 4-2 in Goodson's favor. By the way, the dissenting opinion didn't rhyme.

The How Appealing blog first alerted the world to Eakin's latest poetic performance. WSJ.com's Law Blog and the ABA Journal's Law News Now blog also have chimed in, along with The TortsProf Blog and The Associated Press.

Eakin's car insurance fraud opinion reads as if it came right out of a British Literature 101 course. Here's an example: In January, 2001, appellant’s car was in a collision. His insurer totaled the aging New Yorker, then made a just division of the value of the insurance claim, sending $6,289 to the lender; the balance of $135, to appellant they made tender. And thus the matter terminated, or so one might have thought, but that was not to be, when Goodson’s later schemes were caught.

Dissatisfied with his monetary settlement from the crash, Goodson forged a $6,289 check that was made to look like it was from State Farm.

Eakin picks up the story from there:

Of course the crime soon came to light, as agents of State Farm refused to pay the check he’d forged, which forestalled further harm: “It’s not from us, there is no claim, the check we cannot honor!” And appellant’s scheme was thus undone — he knew he was a goner. When braced, he paid the money back, a mitigating solution, but despite this act, the Commonwealth commenced its prosecution.

Convicted of the forgery, insurance fraud, and theft, he admits the first and last, but denies the charge that’s left. He claims the sentence for insurance fraud is most certainly amiss — he says “I may be guilty, but I’m just not guilty of this. My sentence is inappropriate — undo the wrongful conviction.” And in the end, seeks this relief from our appellate jurisdiction.

Here, Eakin explains why the court threw out the insurance fraud conviction:

Because he made no insurance claim, nor a proffer to an insurer, he didn’t commit insurance fraud, and neither judge nor juror can to the contrary rightly find, even if they’d like to. Two crimes are strikes, but not the third — the count is but strike two, and while those strikes are such that he’s not going to walk, on this last pitch we have no choice but to call a figurative balk. Sentenced on the other crimes, he surely won’t go free, but we find he can’t be guilty of this final felony.

You've got wonder whether Goodson, the man who appealed the fraud conviction, appreciates the language of the Bard of the Bench. Perhaps Goodson simply wanted a ruling in plain English (or, in the case of the courts, plain legalese). But in the end, the man got what he sought and maybe learned a literary lesson in the process.

Here's Eakin's final word(s) on the Goodson case:

Convictions for the forgery and theft are approbated — the sentence for insurance fraud, however, is vacated. The case must be remanded for resentencing, we find, so the trial judge may impose the result he originally had in mind. What Goodson did is serious, but doesn’t comprise this crime — there’s simply no rhyme nor reason for it, for these reasons (and in rhyme).

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