Vancouver woman wins $466K in lawsuit against husband

Insurance company's refusal to pay medical bills spurs litigation

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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To the Clark County jury, Birdie L. Whithorn of Vancouver appears to be a wife who decided to sue her husband for a half of a million dollars because he caused an October 2008 motorcycle accident that injured her.

An important piece of information — that Kent D. Whithorn's liability insurance company, Farmers Insurance, refused to pay his wife's medical bills — was kept from the jury. In civil court, information about whether a plaintiff or respondent has insurance is inadmissible, said Birdie Whithorn's attorney, Don Jacobs of Vancouver.

Nevertheless, the jury on Wednesday awarded $466,323 in damages to the wife at the end of a three-day trial in front of Superior Court Judge David Gregerson. That included $291,323 in economic damages and $175,000 in non-economic damages.

"In a sense, we are suing the insurance company, but the jury isn't told that," Jacobs said. "Obviously, they love each other and are happily married. It's very awkward."

Jacobs said suing her husband was the only way Birdie Whithorn, who didn't have health insurance, could pay for treatment of her back and leg injuries caused by the accident.

The mishap occurred Oct. 25, 2008, as the couple was riding together on the husband's motorcycle during a group ride. The accident occurred near the intersection of Northeast 117th Avenue and Northeast 76th Street. Kent Whithorn testified that he was at fault. He said he wasn't paying close attention before he noticed he was about to collide with another motorcycle. He swerved to avoid the motorcycle, propelling his wife into the air, Jacobs said.

Michael Mitchell, a Farmers Insurance staff attorney who represented Kent Whithorn, argued that the other motorcycle driver — who was never identified — was at fault, Jacobs said. Mitchell was not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon.

Birdie Whithorn had to have two artificial discs inserted into her spine, a fusion surgery on her lower back and two meniscus surgeries on her knees to treat her injuries, Jacobs said. He said she may need additional surgeries.

Jacobs, a personal injury attorney, said this was the second such case he's litigated. The first one 10 years ago in Portland ended in a mistrial. He said the jury is visibly perplexed during such cases because insurance can't be mentioned at trial.

He said the confusion is understandable. Suing a spouse is "like suing yourself," Jacobs said.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends;paris.achen@columbian.com