Uninsured motorist coverage is designed, among other things, to compensate you if you are in an accident with an unknown vehicle. A common example is a “hit and run” where the offending driver speeds away and is never identified. In such cases, your insurance carrier is supposed to provide uninsured motorist benefits. You should always keep in mind that insurance is a contract governed by state law, and as with any contract, there may be unusual circumstances that are not covered by the policy.
American Alternative Insurance Company v. Bennett
The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed such an unusual case. The plaintiff in this case was driving his tractor trailer down a road in Brantley County, Georgia. According to his testimony, a second tractor-trailer transporting “a load of logs” passed him going in the opposite direction. Shortly thereafter, “a log hanging off of the oncoming log truck struck plaintiff’s tractor, shattering the windshield and causing shattered glass to impact the plaintiff’s eyes and face.”
The driver of the log truck did not stop following the accident. Nor did the plaintiff ever learn the identity of the log truck or its driver. Accordingly, he sued several “John Does” in Georgia state court and served his employer’s insurance carrier, seeking uninsured motorist benefits. The trial judge granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, holding it was undisputed the unidentified truck hit the plaintiff’s vehicle.
But the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court ruling and granted summary judgment to the insurer. Where the two courts disagreed was in characterizing the nature of the log which actually struck the plaintiff’s truck. The trial court said the log “was an integral part of the unknown log truck.” The Court of Appeals reached the opposite conclusion.
This is important because under Georgia law, an uninsured motorist carrier is only required to pay benefits when there is “actual physical contact” between the unknown vehicle and the policyholder’s vehicle. The law does make an exception to the physical contact requirement when the claimant’s account of the accident is “corroborated by an eyewitness.” Unfortunately for the plaintiff in this case, there were no other witnesses besides himself and the unidentified log truck driver.
That meant there had to be some physical contact between the log truck and the plaintiff’s vehicle, according to the Court of Appeals. Acknowledging there was none, the plaintiff cited a 1992 decision by the Court of Appeals which held a claimant could satisfy the physical contact requirement by demonstrating an “integral part” of the unknown vehicle—in this case, the log—hit his truck. The current Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting the 1992 case was “nonprecedential and therefore not binding on this Court” and had not been followed or cited by any other Georgia court up to this point.
Even if the court followed the “integral part” rule, it would still not save the plaintiff’s claim. The 1992 case dealt with a “tire assembly which was in the middle of the highway” and hit the plaintiff’s vehicle. A tire is an integral part of a motor vehicle, the Court of Appeals said, while a log carried as cargo in a truck is not.