In the early morning hours of June 21, 2012, on a dark stretch of the Garden State Parkway, Defendant X, an intoxicated motorist, failed to negotiate an exit ramp curve. As a result, the motorist traversed a forty foot grass berm, re-entered the Parkway, struck another southbound automobile and injured the driver, and finally came to rest across the center southbound lane of the Parkway. The force of the impact rendered Defendant X's automobile disabled and without lights.
Several minutes later, Plaintiff Y, also travelling south on the Parkway, brought his car to a stop on the right side shoulder and exited his vehicle in an attempt to render assistance to the intoxicated motorist. While standing in the center lane, and attempting to divert traffic away from the wreck, Plaintiff Y was struck by a third automobile, and was fatally injured.
The intoxicated defendant was insured by a single limit $35,000 policy of liability insurance, and was faced with claims from the seriously injured driver of the second automobile as well as the wrongful death claims of Plaintiff Y. The carrier for the striking automobile argued that their insured was minimally liable to Plaintiff Y considering the lighting conditions. Plaintiff Y had no Underinsured Motorist coverage.
Plaintiff Y's claims were presented to the carrier for the intoxicated Defendant by utilizing the "Danger Invites Rescue" doctrine and alleging that but for the negligent conduct of the defendant in placing himself in a position of danger, the Plaintiff would not have been present on the scene. With two claims against Defendant X, the lack of adequate coverage presented an obvious problem in a case involving a fatally injured Good Samaritan.
In Bacon v. Miller, 113 N.J. Super. 271 (App. Div. 1971), a case of first impression, which predated the advent of Uninsured Motorist coverage, the question before the Court was whether one or two accidents had occurred. Factually, the car driven by one Miller had entered an intersection after disregarding a stop sign and struck a car driven by Bacon. The Miller car, thereafter, went onto the adjacent sidewalk and struck three pedestrians. Miller was found solely at fault in a liability trial which followed. At the time of accident Miller was uninsured and all four injured claimants presented claims to the Unsatisfied Claim and Judgment Fund (hereinafter UCJ). The three pedestrian claims were settled for the aggregate sum of $19,000.00. Since, at the time, the UCJ statute provided for a maximum payment of $20,000.00 for any one accident, leaving only $1,000.00 available to Plaintiff Bacon, Bacon, who was awarded $3,755.00 at a damages trial, argued that two accidents had occurred, and, therefore, that a second $20,000.00 fund existed from which his claims could be satisfied.
The Appellate Division, in disagreeing with Bacon's assertion, observed that other jurisdictions had used a variety of tests in determining whether one or more accidents had occurred. Central to the Court's holding that only one accident had occurred was the fact that after the initial collision, the defendant's auto "continued on an uninterrupted course onto the sidewalk" and that the "accident" in the case lasted no "more than two seconds or covered a space of more than 18-25 feet" and finally that "[the] defendant's car was out of control from the time of the first contact."
In Doria v. Ins. Co. of North America, 210 N.J. Super. 67 (App. Div. 1986), the Appellate Division, in a declaratory judgment action, was called on to determine whether one or more "occurrences" as defined in a general liability policy had taken place. In Doria, two minor boys were injured when the first fell into an in-ground pool and the second, in attempting to rescue the first, also fell into the pool. The homeowner's policy insuring the premises had a per occurrence limit of $100,000.00. The minors' cases were settled within the policy limit with a personal contribution by the defendants and with a reservation of rights by the plaintiffs to institute an action for interpretation of the term "occurrence".
In determining that only one occurrence had taken place within the meaning of the policy, the Court adopted the "time and space" analysis suggested in 55 A.L.R. 2d 1300 and held:
...we are entirely satisfied that there was but one "occurrence" within the meaning of INA's policy. Firstly, the injuries to both [plaintiffs] resulted form a single cause: the insureds' failure to properly fence in and cover the abandoned pool. Secondly, the injuries' temporal and spatial connection compels us to conclude that they resulted from a single occurrence. The boys entered the premises together through the dilapidated fence and became exposed to the uncovered pool precisely at the same time. There was absolutely no change in the dangerous quality of the pool during the intervening seconds between their respective falls into the pool. Andrew's fall was precipitated by his immediate attempt to rescue his brother. Essentially, the injuries to both boys occurred simultaneously while they were submerged in the pool water. ...Their falls and respective injuries occurred during a single, brief sequence of events "...so closely linked in time and space as to be considered by the average person as one event..."Annotation, supra, 55 A.L.R. 2d at 1304. Doria at 75,76.
While in both of the cited cases, the Court determined that only one accident or occurrence had taken place, the cases illustrate that, in the appropriate circumstances, a claim of multiple accidents can successfully be maintained with the result that additional coverage may become available. As the Court indicated, time and space considerations will weigh heavily in any given case and claims should properly be determined on a case by case basis.
The factual pattern set forth at the outset of this article is but one of the many different factual scenarios where resort can be had to the argument that more than one accident or occurrence has taken place in order to gain access to additional insurance coverage. While the majority of the cases might well result from intoxication related accidents, the multiple accident argument can be equally available in any number of other scenarios and should be utilized, where appropriate, to maximize the coverage available to the injured claimant.
The arguments expressed in this article have equal application to the situation where a defendant is faced with multiple claims and potential personal exposure in excess of his insurance liability limits. For a discussion on the varying views used by other jurisdictions in resolving claims of this nature, see 64 A.L.R. 4th 668.
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