When Plaintiff was Involved in One Accident When Plaintiff Never Gained Control
The two parties to an uninsured/underinsured litigation asked the Eleventh Circuit to define and apply the term “accident” as used in an automobile insurance policy to an auto accident where the plaintiff was struck by two different autos. In William Benjamin Danner, Jr., Mary Danner v. Travelers Property Casualty Insurance Company, No. 20-12553, United States Court Of Appeals For The Eleventh Circuit (March 18, 2021) the trial court found one accident and the plaintiffs appealed.
William Danner was involved in a multi-car wreck in which he was hit twice—once by a truck and once by an SUV. Afterward, he and his wife filed a declaratory judgment action against their insurer, Travelers Property Casualty Insurance Company, asserting that their policy limits were applicable to each collision separately because each collision was a separate “accident” under the policy. The district court granted summary judgment for Travelers, holding that the collisions were one single “accident” under the policy.
William B. Danner Jr. was driving home one afternoon when a white pickup truck crossed into his lane and hit him head-on. Danner had no time to react in a way that would have avoided the truck. Then, shortly after the initial crash, a blue sport utility vehicle struck Danner’s car from behind. Importantly, Danner had not yet regained control of his car when he was hit by the blue SUV. He was not even aware that there had been a second collision at the time he left the scene. Later, he testified that he could not recall being hit by the blue SUV. Nor could he recall how much time passed between colliding with the white pickup and being hit by the blue SUV.
At the time of the wreck, Danner was insured by an automobile insurance policy issued by Travelers. The policy included coverage for injuries caused by uninsured motorists with limits of $250,000 per “any one person in any one auto accident.” The policies on the pickup and SUV that collided with Danner each covered less than $250,000.
The Danners filed an action in state court seeking, among other things, a declaratory judgment regarding the amount of uninsured motorist coverage available under their Travelers policy. They alleged that under the policy each collision was a distinct “accident,” meaning that the $250,000 limitation on uninsured motorist liability applied separately to each collision for a total of $500,000.
After considering the filings, the district court denied the Danners’ motion for summary judgment and granted Travelers’ motion. The trial court declared that the policy provided only $250,000 in uninsured motorist coverage for Plaintiff’s claims arising out of the May 31, 2018 accident.
ANALYSIS & The “Cause” Theory
Courts applying Georgia law rely on the “’cause’ theory” to aid in the construction of the word “accident”. Under this theory the number of accidents is determined by the number of causes of the injuries, with the court asking if there was but one proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause which resulted in all of the injuries and damage.
Where an automobile accident involves a sequence of collisions, courts look to whether, after the cause of the initial collision, the driver regained control of the vehicle before a subsequent collision, so that it can be said there was a second intervening cause and therefore a second accident.
The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the district court correctly determined that there was one “accident.” Danner was injured when the white pickup crossed the center line and hit him head-on. Because of that collision Danner’s car was stopped in the road, at which point he was rear-ended by the blue SUV. Danner himself testified that at no point between the first and second collision did he regain control of his car. As he put it: “I had no control over it at all.” Based on these undisputed facts, the district court determined that there was one “proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause” of Danner’s injuries, and thus one “accident” under the policy.
The district court was not required to wait for a jury to apportion fault for the wreck before applying the “cause theory” to determine the number of accidents under the policy. Juries resolve disputes of material fact. In this declaratory judgment action, there are none.
The Eleventh Circuit found that the undisputed facts support the district court’s determination that the two impacts Danner suffered were part of the same “accident.” As a result the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision.
What this case teaches is that one should never try to save money by limiting the available underinsured motorist coverage. No one should carry less UM/UIM coverage than the liability coverage they find available for a third party the insured may injure. It is not the number of collisions that determine the number of accidents but the fact that there was an uninterrupted series of collisions with Danner’s vehicle disabled, out of control, when it was struck a second time all part of the same proximate event.
© 2021 – Barry Zalma
Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost
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