Oregon High Court Analyzes the Meaning of “Accident” in UM/UIM Policy

The Oregon Supreme Court recently issued an en banc opinion in Wright v. Turner, 354 Or —, — P3d —, 2014 WL 662164 (2014), addressing the definition of the term “accident” as used in the underinsured/uninsured motorist (UM/UIM) provisions of an automobile insurance policy.  The issue arose in the context of a case where the parties disputed when injuries were caused by one accident, or two separate accidents.  The Court determined that the meaning of the term was dependent not only upon its use in the insurance policy, but also upon the legislature’s intent in including the term in the Oregon UM/UIM statute.  The justices ultimately concluded that the term “accident” is an issue for the jury, which must consider whether there is an uninterrupted “event, happening, or occurrence,” or whether there was an interruption that permits a finding of more than one “accident.”

The case involved an insured, Wright, who was a passenger in a truck.  A vehicle driven by Turner spun out in front of the truck, causing a collision.  After some time in which several vehicles passed the truck without incident, a vehicle being driven by Oliver collided with the truck.  Wright sustained a number of injuries that required a significant amount of treatment.  She filed suit against Turner and Oliver alleging they negligently caused her injuries.  In addition, Wright sought damages from her insurance company for underinsured motorist benefits because Turner and Oliver did not have sufficient liability insurance to cover her injuries.  Wright settled with Turner and Oliver for the full amount of their liability policies, leaving only the insurance company.

At trial, Wright sought $979,540 in underinsured motorist benefits.  The trial court submitted the question of damages to the jury, but refused the insurer’s request that the jury decide the number of accidents that happened.  The court reasoned that the insurance company failed to raise, or was estopped from raising, the argument that Wright’s injuries were caused by one “accident.”  If successful, the insurance company’s position would have limited Wright’s recovery to the single accident policy limits of $500,000.  The jury returned a verdict for Wright in the amount of her prayer and the trial court entered judgment.  The insurance company appealed the ruling to the Court of Appeals arguing that the trial court erred by precluding it from litigating the number of accidents that occurred and that, as a matter of law, Wright’s injuries resulted from a single accident.  The Court of Appeals agreed with the insurance company, finding that the the parties could litigate the issue of the number of accidents.  The Court of Appeals went one step further, however, finding “as a matter of law” that only one accident occurred in the case.  Wright appealed both issues to the Oregon Supreme Court.

As required under the Oregon UM/UIM statute, the applicable insurance policy included coverage “for bodily injury and property damages resulting from any one accident … regardless of the number of … vehicles involved in the accident.”  The term “accident” is not defined in the policy or the Oregon UM/UIM statute.  Because the term was required by statute, in determining its meaning the Court analyzed the legislature’s purpose in drafting the law as opposed to the parties’ intent in entering into the insurance contract.  The Court consulted a number of historical sources, including the legislative history and other sources of information contemporaneous to the drafting of the UM/UIM statute, in analyzing the meaning of the term.  In the end, the Court determined that the jury must consider whether the UM/UIM claimant’s injuries were caused by one uninterrupted event, happening, or occurrence—or if there was an interruption in the event, happening, or occurrence that would permit a finding of multiple accidents.  The Court cautioned that this determination is one for the jury which must consider the facts and circumstances of each case.

Maloney Lauersdorf Reiner is experienced in advising clients concerning UM/UIM coverage and other automobile insurance issues, including providing coverage analysis and representing clients in litigation.  Please feel free to contact us with any questions about this case, or any other matters you see on the Insurance Coverage Blog.

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