Auto insurance companies universally set per accident and sometimes per person limits on how much can be collected after a collision for which they are liable. These limits are based on the specifics of the policy in question, usually involving how much the insured pays.
While the question of how many accidents occurred is typically a simple one, there are scenarios wherein certain facts could raise doubt. This is commonly the case in multiple-vehicle accidents. It’s not uncommon in these situations for plaintiffs to argue more than one crash occurred. The simple reason for this the more accidents there were, the more insurance money will be available. In many cases, the number of claimants will not affect the per-accident payout (so the more claimants there are, the less can be paid to each individually). Meanwhile, proving there was more than one accident could mean more damages collected per claim.
In a case recently before the Wyoming Supreme Court, this issue was raised by a widowed bicyclist who was seriously injured – and her husband killed – when they were struck by a driver as they rode along a roadway.
The driver of that vehicle was not insured, as required by state law. (A similar statute exists in Florida.) The good news for the bicyclists was they had uninsured motorist coverage (UM) from their own auto insurance carrier. This coverage can extend to those involved in a bicycle accident involving a car, even if they weren’t the ones behind the wheel. UM coverage provides benefits when you are involved with a negligent driver who is either not insured or not identified (i.e., hit-and-run).
UM insurer submitted a payment of $300,000 – the policy limit – to the court while this action was pending, agreeing they were liable for the full policy limit. However, plaintiff argued there were in fact two separate accidents, and therefore, UM insurer was actually liable to pay up to $600,000. Plaintiff’s reasoning was that negligent driver had regained control of the vehicle in the moment between striking her husband and her.
Impact of the two cyclists occurred less than two seconds apart, with decedent husband struck first as he was riding about 30 feet behind his wife.
Trial court, in considering this, took note of Wyoming’s application of the “cause theory” in legal theories that interpret use of the term “one accident.” The cause theory asks whether there was one proximate, uninterrupted and continuing cause that resulted in all of the injuries and damage. This theory posits that if the cause is interrupted or replaced by another intervening cause, then the chain of causation is broken, which would result in two or more occurrences, depending on the number of intervening causes. For instance, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the 1968 case of Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Rawls that if a driver maintained or regained control of the vehicle before going on to hit a second vehicle (or to hit the first again), the collisions can be deemed separate incidents. In the Rawls case, collisions that occurred within five seconds of each other were separate accidents from a legal standpoint.
Trial court granted summary judgment to insurer.
But the state supreme court reversed, finding trial court erred in considering only time and spacial elements, and not the issue of whether the driver maintained or regained control between hitting the first bicycle and striking the second. The case was remanded to the lower court for further proceedings.
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Hurst v. Metropolitan Property & Casualty Insurance Co., Sept. 12, 2017, Wyoming Supreme Court
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