Is an auto accident that kills one bicyclist and then within seconds injures a second considered one event or two under Georgia insurance law?
The Georgia Supreme Court ruled on March 1 that under Georgia law, this constitutes one accident.
The ruling in the case favored State Auto Property and Casualty Co., which raised the question after the families of the two bicyclists both sought the maximum $100,000 that its policy said it would pay for “any one accident.”
The insurer had raised the question about state law in the case in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, which asked the state court for guidance on the definition of an accident under Georgia insurance law.
On Feb. 3, 2008 on Georgia Route 315, Rachel Nicole Griffin’s Ford Explorer first hit and killed cyclist Matthew Scott Matty and then “just over a second” later struck and injured Jeffrey Michael Davis.
Matty’s widow, who had three children, sued Griffin and her parents, Frank and Karen Griffin. In December, a jury awarded Matty $3.4 million.
The insured’s policy with State Auto contained a limit of liability for bodily injury of $100,000 for “each accident.” The policy also stated that this limit of liability is the “maximum limit of liability for all damages resulting from any one auto accident.”
The policy did not define “accident,” “each accident,” or “any one accident.”
State Auto contended that the incident was one accident and that it was therefore responsible for providing only a single $100,000 limit of coverage.
The claimants, on the other hand, contended that there were two accidents and that State Auto was responsible for providing two $100,000 limits of coverage. They argued that since “accident” was not defined in the policy, courts may look to statutory and dictionary definitions and those suggest that “accident” must be construed to mean that two different impacts constitute two different accidents.
But the high court dismissed the reliance on statutory and dictionary definitions, reminding plaintiffs that contracts must be construed as a whole and with the intent of the parties in mind.
The court said the State Auto policy viewed as a whole “shows a clear intent to limit liability in accidents involving multiple vehicles.”
Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias writing for the majority in the 4-3 decision, stated:
“Automobile accidents involving multiple vehicles and multiple injured parties are an everyday occurrence on our roads. Recognizing this reality, this contractual language contemplates that there can be a single accident in which there are multiple vehicles, injured parties, and claims and provides that for that type of accident, there will be a liability limit of $100,000.”
The court said that defining accident as urged by the claimants by the number of impacts regardless of how close in time and place they occurred would mean that “there can never be one accident and a $100,000 limit of liability in a multiple vehicle collision because it is virtually impossible for multiple vehicles to collide truly simultaneously.”
Under the claimant’s view, the policy’s $100,000 limitation of liability “regardless of the number of . . . [v]ehicles involved” would be meaningless in almost any collision involving multiple vehicles, as State Auto would have to pay $100,000 for each impact and that was “plainly not the intent of the contract,” the court said.
In the ruling, the Georgia court adopted what is known as the “cause” theory, which a majority of state courts have followed. Under this theory, the number of accidents is determined by the number of causes of the injuries, with the question asked being “if there was but one proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause which resulted in all of the injuries and damage.”
The court noted that in accidents involving multiple collisions that do not occur simultaneously, 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.
A second approach, used by a minority of courts, is the “effect” theory, under which the number of accidents is determined from the point of view of the person who was injured, so that each individual injury constitutes a separate “accident.”
The third theory is known as the “event” theory. Under it, a court looks to the number of events that resulted in the injuries and liability in question. If the injuries resulted from an event, “unbroken with no intervening agent or operative factor,” there is just one accident under the policy.
The Georgia Supreme Court held that the cause theory is “more consistent” with Georgia tort law than the effect and event theories, recognizing that liability insurance is designed to cover damages for the torts of the insured. “Under our tort law, it is well-settled that ‘no liability attaches unless the negligence alleged is the proximate cause of the injury sustained,’” the court wrote. Defining the number of separate “accidents” in terms of the number of separate “causes” is consistent with this rule, the court said.