Sole, Uninterrupted Proximate Cause Of Accident Determines Coverage Limit
Automobile insurance policy limits are usually based on a per accident basis. When an automobile accident involves multiple collisions disputes arise as to the limits. The insurer will try to limit it to one accident while the injured will try to make each of the multiple collisions into multiple accidents.
In State Farm Mut. Auto., Ins. Co. v. Glover-Shaw, Not Reported in P.3d, Court of Appeals of Washington, 2016 WL 687180 (Feb. 16, 2016) the court of appeal was asked to determine how many accidents resulted from the incident started by a drunk driver.
On the night of April 1, 2011, Suzanna Suljic was driving drunk southbound on Broadway in Everett, Washington. As Suljic approached the intersection of Broadway and Everett Avenue, she crossed the center lane into the northbound lanes of Broadway and hit George Maxfield’s northbound car. She then swerved into the southbound left turn lane and rear-ended Terry Kennedy’s southbound car, which was stopped at a red light waiting to make a left turn onto Everett Avenue. The impact of the collision slammed Kennedy’s car forward into the rear end of Matthew Thayer’s car. Kennedy’s car rotated and hit the front driver’s side of Jason Tastad’s car, which was traveling southbound on Broadway.
Suljic continued southbound in the northbound lanes of Broadway into the intersection of Broadway and Everett Avenue. She ran the red light and collided head-on with Lynsey Price’s northbound car at the south end of the intersection. The impact of this collision caused Suljic’s car to rotate and strike Price’s car again on the passenger side. Amber Conner, driving northbound behind Price, then rear-ended Price’s car. According to State Farm’s car collision analysis expert, all of these collisions occurred in about four to five seconds within about 160 feet.
The car Suljic was driving was insured by State Farm. Her insurance policy provides liability coverage in the amount of $100,000 per accident. Her insurance policy does not define the word accident.
State Farm filed a complaint for declaratory judgment in January 2013, naming all involved drivers and passengers as defendants. State Farm requested a declaration that the numerous collisions that occurred as Suljic approached and entered the intersection of Broadway and Everett Avenue, from Suljic’s collision with Maxfield’s car to the last collision between Price’s and Conner’s cars, constitute one accident for the purposes of liability under GloverShaw’s insurance policy.
State Farm moved for summary judgment in August 2013. State’s Farm’s motion for summary judgment was denied. State Farm’s declaratory action was tried before a jury in June 2014. State Farm presented one witness, a car collision analysis expert named Tim Moebes. He expressed his opinion that the collisions at issue took place over about 160 feet in about four to five seconds. The defendants did not call any witnesses. The jury also considered a book of exhibits including a police report with a description of the collisions and witness statements. At the end of the trial, the jury decided against State Farm by answering no to three special verdict form questions.
A summary judgment denial is subject to review if the parties do not dispute any issues of fact and the decision on summary judgment turned solely on a substantive issue of law.
State Farm claimed one accident since the alleged injuries or damage were within the scope of a single “proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause” that must be treated as arising from a single accident. Truck Ins. Exch. v. Rohde, 49 Wn.2d 465, 471–72, 303 P.2d 659 (1956).
In Rohde, the driver veered across the center line of the highway into oncoming traffic and in quick succession hit three motorcycles traveling each about 75 feet apart in an echelon formation. There was only one proximate cause for all three collisions—the driver’s negligence in losing control of his car and veering into oncoming traffic. Because there was only one proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause for all three collisions, our Supreme Court held they constituted only one accident.
In this case, the respondents do not argue that any driver other than Suljic drove negligently. It is undisputed that Suljic was driving under the influence of alcohol. Suljic had also recently taken several prescription medications. When she was interviewed following the collisions, Suljic told the police that the car brakes failed and that she “just tried to get in the center lane” because she “thought it would be safe.” Suljic’s passengers confirmed that she was screaming that the brakes were not working. But a post-accident investigation found no problem with the car’s brakes.
In addition, State Farm’s car collision analysis expert found it more probable than not that the entire set of collisions occurred in four to five seconds and in approximately 160 feet. Respondents claim that the witness statements cast doubt on the timing and distance of the collisions but they do not demonstrate inconsistency with the expert’s findings on these issues. When the non-moving party fails to controvert relevant facts supporting a summary judgment motion, the facts are considered to have been established.
The distance traveled by Suljic in these collisions is almost exactly the same distance traveled in Rohde, where the collisions constituted one accident. Relying on the facts and expert testimony summarized above, State Farm presented a prima facie case that, like in Rohde the collisions shared one proximate cause—Suljic’s initial negligence in driving while drunk and losing control of her car.
Volitional conduct such as turning the steering wheel and stepping on the gas pedal does not equate to regaining control of a car that has veered into the lane of oncoming traffic. Moments before the collisions at issue in this case, Suljic hit parked cars in the 2300 block of Broadway. She was able to regain enough control to drive three more blocks before the collision with Maxfield’s car occurred as she approached the intersection of Broadway and Everett Avenue and crossed the center lane. State Farm concedes that Suljic’s collisions with the parked cars on the 2300 block of Broadway constitute a separate accident for insurance coverage purposes.
Suljic’s blood alcohol level was above the legal limit. She had just hit two parked cars three blocks to the north. She then collided with three more cars as she approached and entered the intersection of Broadway and Everett Avenue. Her driving was erratic and dangerous, including veering into oncoming traffic. These facts supply ample evidence that Suljic was not in control of her car. The facts set forth in State Farm’s motion for summary judgment establish that Suljic’s negligence in losing control of her car was the sole, uninterrupted proximate cause of all the collisions at issue. The court of appeal concluded that the trial court erred in denying State Farm’s motion for summary judgment.
Reasonable people can feel for the victims of Suljic’s drunk driving. The jury and trial judge felt for them enough to make a simple, sole, uninterrupted proximate cause of a collision – regardless of the number of vehicles involved – is still one accident not multiple accidents and only one limit is required. The law requires courts to deal with the facts and the law and not rule based upon a concern for the victims of an accident who will not be able to collect from the driver’s insurer enough to compensate for their injuries.
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, practiced law in California for more than 43 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer. He now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant and expert witness specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes.
He founded Zalma Insurance Consultants in 2001 and serves as its only consultant.
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