The Geico gecko has long touted the company’s claims of “great service and savings on car insurance.” But in the case of a Missouri woman who said she caught a sexually transmitted disease after having sex in the car of a Geico member, the state’s appeals court ruled this week that the insurance company needed to do more — and now potentially owes her millions of dollars.
The Missouri Court of Appeals upheld a $5.2 million judgment on Tuesday involving a Jackson County, Mo., woman who said she unknowingly caught HPV, the human papillomavirus, during unprotected sex in the luxury sedan of a former male romantic partner in 2017. After the woman notified Geico that she was seeking monetary damages, an arbitrator with Jackson County Circuit Court ruled last year that the man was liable for not disclosing his infection, saying the sex in the car “directly caused, or directly contributed to cause” of the woman’s contraction of HPV.
Geico had argued the judgment did not fall in line with Missouri law, claiming to the court that the man’s policy covered injuries that only came “out of the ownership, maintenance or use of the … auto.” The company also claimed the injuries to the woman, identified in court documents as M.O., “arose from an intervening cause — namely, her failure to prevent transmission of STDs by having unprotected sex.”
In an opinion published this week, a three-judge panel sided with the lower court, saying Geico did not have a strong case for appeal once a judgment was entered and the $5.2 million damages were determined.
“At the time of Geico’s intervention, liability and damages had been determined by an arbitrator and confirmed by the trial court,” Court of Appeals Judge Edward R. Ardini Jr. wrote in the opinion. “Geico had no right to re-litigate those issues.”
A Geico spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Thursday. An attorney for the woman is not listed in court documents.
The story was first reported by the Kansas City Star.
M.O. and the man, identified in court documents as M.B., began a romantic relationship in late 2017, records show. Sometime during that relationship, the couple had sex inside M.B.’s 2014 Hyundai Genesis — a luxury sedan that Kelley Blue Book raved “leaves very little to criticize.”
The woman alleged the Kansas man had been previously diagnosed with HPV — the most prevalent STD in the United States and a precursor to a variety of cancers — but “did not tell M.O. about it or take measures to prevent transmitting the virus to M.O.” At a gynecology exam about a year after the relationship began, the woman was diagnosed with HPV, according to court records.
“She later learned that she contracted the virus from M.B.,” the complaint says.
Knowing that M.B. was insured by Geico, the woman sent a letter to the insurance company in February 2021 demanding $1 million in damages for “negligence and negligent infliction of emotional distress.”
“Let me know,” M.O. wrote.
After Geico investigated the claim, the insurance company argued that the man told the woman he had been diagnosed with HPV-positive throat cancer and that the man was not diagnosed with the STD before 2017, according to court documents. Geico also suggested the woman might have been infected from another sexual partner, and argued the couple had sex in locations other than the insured vehicle, records show.
When the insurance company denied the settlement and said the woman failed to prevent her STD infection, the case was sent to arbitration. In May 2021, an arbitrator sided with M.O. and awarded her $5.2 million in damages to be paid by Geico. The insurance company called for a new hearing and the award to be tossed out, arguing that the judgment had violated Geico’s rights to due process. Geico ended up filing a formal appeal to the state when those requests were denied by the lower court.
In a separate opinion on Tuesday, Court of Appeals Judge Thomas N. Chapman agreed with his colleagues in their decision to side with the lower court’s settlement, but wrote that he believed Geico was given “no meaningful opportunity to participate” in the woman’s lawsuit and existing state law “relegat(es) the insurer to the status of a bystander.”
Whether Geico will end up paying the settlement stemming from the HPV infection remains unclear. The insurance company is contesting the decision in federal court, arguing that the claim is not covered under the policy, the Star reported. The outcome of that case could determine whether Geico is forced to pay M.O. more than $5 million in damages.
The case could have a lasting influence on how insurance companies pay out incidents that happen inside an insured vehicle, U.S. Magistrate Judge Angel D. Mitchell wrote last year.
“This case presents novel and potentially important issues about whether an insurance carrier can be held liable under such policies for the consequences of two adults voluntarily having unprotected sex in the insured’s automobile,” Mitchell wrote last year. “Interpretation of these policies could have far-reaching implications for other policies with similar terms.”