Does an Insurance Policy Cover Three Collisions in One “Accident”?
Every vehicle that drives on Georgia roadways has insurance. That’s a rule and anyone who drives in Georgia without insurance, will be arrested. But what happens when there isn’t enough insurance? Ask an experienced Atlanta accident lawyer after you read the below.
In December 2016, Abdi Mahad was driving a semi on Georgia Highway 15 when he lost control of the truck. The 18-wheeler overturned and slid across the highway into the lane where a motorist, William Meeks, was driving. Meeks’s car crashed into the overturned truck, knocking him unconscious. When he awoke later, he called 911 and checked on the semi driver. The truck driver told Meeks he was okay, and Meeks walked back to his car.
Sometime later, vehicles driven by two other motorists also crashed into the overturned truck, and both drivers suffered injuries.
The precise timing of the three collisions was in dispute. Meeks testified that he didn’t know how long he was unconscious after his collision or how long he stayed in his car once he regained consciousness. He also said that he didn’t know how much time passed between his collision and the second collision, but he thought it was at least five minutes. He testified that the time between the second and third collisions was probably about five to seven minutes.
The Truck Company’s Insurance Policy
The trucking company was insured under a motor carrier liability policy (“the Policy”) that was issued in Kentucky. The Policy states that the insurance company must pay all applicable bodily injury or property damage claims “caused by an ‘accident’ and resulting from the ownership, maintenance or use of covered ‘autos’.” Plus, the Policy defines the term “Accident” as “continuous or repeated exposure to the same conditions resulting in ‘bodily injury.'” The Policy also contains a “Limit of Insurance” provision that states, in part:
Regardless of the number of covered ‘autos’, ‘insureds’, premiums paid, claims made or vehicles involved in the ‘accident’, the most we will pay for the total of all damages . . . combined resulting from any one ‘accident’ is the Limit of Insurance for Covered Autos Liability Coverage . . . . All ‘bodily injury’ [and] ‘property damage’ . . . resulting from continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same conditions will be considered as resulting from one ‘accident’.
The limit of insurance is $1,000,000 per accident.
All Three Motorist Sue the Truck Company
All three motorists brought claims against the trucking company for their injuries in the accident. The trucking company’s insurer paid at least $1,000,000 (the limit of insurance under the Policy) in settlement to the other two motorists, but Meeks didn’t get any payment under the Policy.
In August 2018, Meeks filed an action in the Charlton County Superior Court alleging that the trucking company and the semi driver were liable to him for his injuries. The complaint also listed the insurance company as a defendant. While that action was pending, the insurance company filed a lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment that it had exhausted its limits under the Policy and owed no coverage to Meeks nor had any obligation to provide a defense to any party in the underlying action.
A declaratory judgment (or “declaration” or “declaratory relief”) is a court-issued judgment that states the rights and obligations of each party in a contract, such as an insurance policy. Declaratory judgments are final judgments and are legally binding.
The insurance company then moved to dismiss the case, and Meeks filed a motion to dismiss the insurance company’s action for declaratory relief. Meeks argued that it should be dismissed because a parallel state court action was pending.
The district court denied Meeks’s motion and granted the insurance company’s motion for summary judgment to dismiss the case. The district court held that the three collisions constituted only one “accident” under the Policy, and therefore the insurance company had met its limit of insurance.
Meeks Appeals the Decision of the District Court
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit first addressed the district court’s denial of Meeks’s motion to dismiss the insurance company’s declaratory judgment action.
Meeks argued that the district court erred by declining to abstain from hearing the insurance company’s declaratory judgment action.
The district court held that the balance of the relevant factors weighed in favor of retaining jurisdiction over the insurance company’s declaratory judgment action. The Eleventh Circuit agreed and found that Meeks’s arguments didn’t show the district court abused its discretion, noting that even if it were to agree with Meeks that some factors weigh in favor of declining jurisdiction, that wouldn’t lead the Court to conclude the district court abused its discretion.
In addition, the insurance company claimed it was entitled to dismissal because it already met its obligation under the Policy when it paid $1,000,000 to the other two motorists for claims arising from the collisions. Under the Policy, the insurance company is obligated to pay up to $1,000,000 “per accident.” Thus, the Eleventh Circuit said the primary question was whether the three collisions constituted a single accident or multiple accidents. The Court agreed with the district court that, according to the terms of the Policy, only one accident occurred.
The Eleventh Circuit held that the policy was not ambiguous. As defined in the Policy, the term “accident” encompasses all three collisions. The Policy defines “accident” as including “continuous or repeated exposure to the same conditions resulting in ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage.'” The inclusion of “continuous or repeated exposure to the same conditions” clearly contemplates the situation here: multiple collisions with the same overturned truck. The Policy’s “Limit of Insurance” section makes this even more explicit, the Court found, clarifying that “repeated exposure to substantially the same conditions will be considered as resulting from one ‘accident'” for coverage purposes.
But Meeks argued that the collisions couldn’t constitute a single accident under the Policy because he was exposed to “entirely different conditions” than the other two motorists. According to Meeks, the difference is that he collided with the overturned truck while it was sliding across the highway; the other two motorists struck a stationary tractor-trailer after the driver had time to warn approaching motorists. But the Eleventh Circuit wasn’t convinced All three motorists hit the truck within a matter of minutes as it lay overturned in the road. The fact that Meeks’s collision occurred while the truck was still moving and the others happened once the truck was stationary didn’t change the fact that the injuries of all three claimants arose from “substantially the same conditions.”
As a result, under the plain terms of the Policy, only one accident occurred. Because the insurance company paid the amount required for a single accident, the district court’s grant of the insurer’s request to dismiss the case was proper. Milford Cas. Ins. Co. v. Meeks, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 12157 (11th Cir. April 23, 2021).
Speak to an Experienced Atlanta Truck Accident Attorney
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 Atlanta residents trust who has successfully resolved similar types of cases. You should work with an experienced Atlanta truck accident attorney. 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.
Tobin Injury Law offers complimentary no-obligation consultations.