Under New York's “no-fault” insurance law, a driver must maintain a minimum level of insurance coverage. This includes at least $50,000 of coverage “per accident” involving the insured driver. This means if you are in a motor vehicle accident, the most your policy will cover is $50,000, regardless of the number of persons injured. Of course, you can always choose to purchase a higher amount of coverage.
Insurance companies strictly adhere to the per-accident limit in order to limit their own liability. This can lead to disagreements over what constitutes a single “accident.” A federal appeals court in New York recently addressed such a situation.
Insurer Argues Three Accidents Were Really One
In April 2010, 17 people were injured following a chain of events on the New York State Thruway in Ontario County. According tonews reports, a dump truck struck an overpass, causing the truck's box to separate from the vehicle and crash onto the roadway. A van containing a driver and nine passengers then “side-swiped” the box. Several minutes later, an SUV containing a driver and six passengers hit the same box.
The dump truck's owner had an insurance policy with a $1 million per accident limit. The insurance company filed suit in Brooklyn federal court, seeking a declaration that all of the events described above comprised a single accident. The victims argued to the contrary, there were three separate accidents—the dump truck hitting the overpass, the van hitting the dump truck box, and the SUV hitting the same box. This would mean the insurance company was liable upwards of $3 million, or $1 million for each distinct accident.
The trial court ruled in favor of the victims, holding there were three accidents. The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York affirmed this decision in a September 15order. The appeals court explained under New York law, there is a two-part test for determining how to characterize multiple “occurrences” for insurance purposes. The first part of the test identifies the “operative incident,” which gives rise to the insurer's liability. New York courts have long held that multiple incidents may arise from the same cause. That is, there can be three separate incidents (the three accidents) resulting from the same cause (the dump truck hitting the overpass).
The second part of the test then requires analysis of the “temporal and spatial proximity” of the incidents. In other words, did the “relative timing” of the three incidents render it a single event? Here, the appeals court said it did not. Although it was not clear from the existing record exactly how much time elapsed between the three events, the insurer conceded there was at least “several seconds” between the first and second and second and third incidents. Furthermore, the court said there was no evidence the first accident caused the second accident, or that the second accident caused the third accident. This was not, in the court's view, a single unbroken chain of events.
Need Help Following an Accident?Dealing with insurance companies is just one legal problem you may face following a motor vehicle accident. An experienced New York personal injury attorney can help you deal with this and any other issues you may face. The attorneys at Waldhauser & Nisar, LLP, can assist you with all types of accident cases.