This may sound like a test question from an introduction to philosophy class: If a truck hits two vehicles in succession, one right after the other, is that one accident or two accidents? When it comes to dealing with insurance companies, however, this is not just a hypothetical issue. How the law defines “accident” can significantly affect the award of insurance benefits to accident victims.
Grange Mutual Insurance Company v. Slaughter
The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta recently confronted this “one accident or two” question in a complex personal injury case, Grange Mutual Insurance Company v. Slaughter, arising from an October 2015 incident. The driver of a dump truck owned by Four Seasons Trucking (FST) illegally crossed a center line and hit two other vehicles in rapid succession.
The two drivers who were hit separately filed personal injury lawsuits against FST in Georgia state court. These lawsuits also named Grange Mutual Insurance Company, which issued the policy that insured the dump truck. Grange then filed a third lawsuit in federal court–this was the case on appeal to the 11th Circuit–asking a judge to declare the insurer’s obligations in this matter.
The complicating factor here was that while Grange issued the policy that insured the dump truck, that policy was not issued to FST. Instead, it was issued to Four Seasons Trucking & Grading (T&G), a “sister” company to FST. Despite this, a federal judge eventually determined Grange was liable under the policy it issued to T&G.
There was also a question as to whether the events of October 2015 qualified as one accident or two accidents. Why did this matter? Because like many auto insurance policies, the T&G policy issued by Grange limits the amount of the insurer’s liability on a “per accident” basis. FST and T&G, as the policyholders, wanted the court to find there were multiple accidents. The plaintiffs in the personal injury cases argued there was only one accident.
But the 11th Circuit said that “under the policies and under Georgia law, the events here constituted a single accident.” The appeals court first noted that “standard” Georgia auto insurance policies do not actually define the term “accident.” In cases similar to this one, Georgia’s Supreme Court has said that when there are multiple collisions in succession, the key question is “whether, after the cause of the initial collision, the driver regained control of the vehicle before a subsequent collision.” If the driver does regain control and there is a “second intervening cause” for the subsequent collision, then the accidents are separate events.
In this case, the 11th Circuit said, there was “no evidence” that the driver of the dump truck ever “regained control” of his vehicle in between the two collisions. FST and T&G tried to argue the two collisions could still be considered separate events “even if only a single second has passed,” but the appeals court rejected this interpretation as “misguided.” Indeed, the Court noted the policies at-issue expressly contemplated the possibility of single, multi-vehicle accidents, which would not be necessary if every separate collision qualified as its own accident.