What Does the Term “Accident” Mean in an Auto Insurance Policy?

What Does the Term “Accident” Mean in an Auto Insurance Policy? A good truck accident lawyer Atlanta residents turn to for advice should have answers to your questions.

In an appeal from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals just announced a per curiam decision where it defined what the term “accident” means in an automobile insurance policy.

Eleventh Circuit Judges Jordan, Grant, and Brasher heard the appeal of a case where William Danner and his wife were involved in a multi-car accident. The Danners were hit twice—once by a truck and once by an SUV.

The Danners were driving home one afternoon when a truck crossed over into his lane and hit their vehicle head-on. Mr. Danner had no time to react to avoid the truck. A moment later—after the initial crash—a blue SUV rear-ended his car.

It’s important to note that Mr. Danner had not yet regained control of his vehicle car when the Danners were hit by the SUV. In fact, Mr. Danner didn’t even know there’d been a second collision when he left the scene. Later, he testified that he couldn’t recall being hit by the SUV, and he couldn’t recall how much time passed between colliding with the truck and being hit by the SUV.

Victim Files Lawsuit Against His Insurance Company

Danner and his wife filed a declaratory judgment action against their insurer (“Insurance Company”). They claimed that their policy limits were applicable to each collision separately because each collision was a separate “accident” under the policy.

However, the Georgia trial court dismissed the case in favor of the Insurance Company, holding that the collisions were one single “accident” under the policy.

At the time of the accident with the truck and the SUV, the Danners were insured by an auto insurance policy issued by the Insurance Company. 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 Danners’ auto policy defined “uninsured” motor vehicles to include those that are insured at the time of the accident by policies that cap liability at a lower amount than the Insurance Company’s policy. The policies on the truck and SUV that collided with the Danners each covered less than $250,000.

The Danners filed an action seeking, among other things, a declaratory judgment on the amount of uninsured motorist coverage available under their auto insurance policy.

A declaratory judgment is a ruling by a court that defines and outlines the rights and obligations of each party in a contract. A declaratory judgment has the same effect and authority as a final judgment, and it’s legally binding. Sometimes, a declaratory judgment is referred to as declaratory relief.

The Danners claimed that under their auto policy, each collision was a distinct “accident,” meaning that the $250,000 limitation on uninsured motorist liability applied separately to each collision. So, their total payout should have been double: $500,000.

After several months of discovery, the Danners and the Insurance Company both sought to have the court dismiss the case in their favor. The district court denied the Danners’ motion, granted the Insurance Company’s motion. Further, the trial court declared that the policy “provide[d] $250,000 in uninsured motorist coverage… for Plaintiff’s claims arising out of the May 31, 2018 accident[.]”

The Danners appealed the Eleventh Circuit.

The Victim Says It was Two Accidents, Not Just One

Mr. Danner and his wife argued that, under the insurance policy, there wasn’t one “accident”—there were two.

As such, the Danners contended that the uninsured motorist coverage limitations should apply twice—one time for each collision—not just once to the entire sequence of collisions. This would have effectively doubled the applicable limit on liability.

Further, the Danners argued that the district court erred by granting summary judgment before a jury could apportion fault for the accident.

Georgia Law Controls Interpretation of the Insurance Policy

The parties agreed that Georgia law controls the interpretation of the insurance policy. The Eleventh Circuit explained that courts applying Georgia law use the “cause theory” to help in interpreting the word “accident.” The Court of Appeals said that 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,” citing a Third Circuit decision.

Where an automobile accident involves a sequence of collisions, courts will determine if, 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.

Georgia District Court Found There was Just One Accident

The Eleventh Circuit found that the district court in Georgia correctly determined that there was only one “accident.”

The Danners were injured when the truck crossed the center line and hit them head-on. Because of that collision, the Danner’s car was stopped in the road when they were rear-ended by the SUV. The Court noted that Mr. Danner himself testified that at no point between the first and second collision did he regain control of his car, stating that “I had no control over it at all.”

Based on these undisputed facts, the Eleventh Circuit said the district court determined that there was one “proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause” of Danner’s injuries—and as a result, one “accident” under the policy. Moreover, as the district court noted, there was no evidence presented that the second collision caused any separate and distinct injury to the Danners.

As a result, the Georgia district court didn’t err when it granted the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment. Danner v. Travelers Prop. Cas. Ins. Co., 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 7939 (11th Cir. March 18, 2021).

Questions About Your Insurance Policy and a Semi Accident?

If you or a loved one has been injured by a semi in an auto accident, you should speak to an experienced personal injury lawyer who has successfully resolved similar types of cases and understands how auto and semi truck insurance policies work.

You should work with an experienced Atlanta truck accident attorney Atlanta counts on every day to make these roads safer. Contact Tobin Injury Law, and we will work to get you the compensation you deserve. We know what to look for when suing a trucking company.

You can contact an Atlanta truck accident attorney 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 404-JUSTICE (404-587-8423) or using our online contact form. Tobin Injury Law offers free consultations, and we’ll be glad to answer your questions.