Appellate court rules truck that struck multiple vehicles counts as one crash

By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer | 11/26/2018

If a truck crashes into multiple vehicles, does it count as multiple crashes for insurances purposes or one? According to the Fifth Circuit appellate court, the truck is liable for only a single crash under the $1 million policy limit.

On Nov. 19, the Fifth Circuit court of appeals reversed a lower court’s decision in favor of Evanston Insurance Co.’s lawsuit against Global Waste Service’s primary insurance holder, Mid-Continent Casualty Co. Evanston, Global’s excess liability policy holder, claimed that a runaway Mack truck that struck four vehicles and a toll plaza was responsible for each vehicle on an individual basis, racking up a multimillion dollar bill.

Mid-Continent argued that the series of crashes was actually just one incident. Therefore, it was only liable for the $1 million limit established by the policy. Evanston’s policy with Global includes a $5 million per-accident liability limit. The appellate court agreed with Mid-Continent.

Crash details
On Nov. 15, 2013, a Mack truck insured by Mid-Continent struck four vehicles, a Dodge Ram, a Ford F-150, a Honda Accord and a Dodge Charger,  and a stationary object, a toll plaza. The incident occurred over a period of 10 minutes after the driver lost control of the truck on North Beltway 8 in Houston.

According to court documents, the Mack first struck the Dodge Ram and then hit the Ford F-150 approximately three minutes later. About two minutes after striking the Ford pickup truck, the Mack struck the Accord waiting at the toll plaza. Once separated from the Accord, the Mack truck continued to travel through the automatic toll lane for approximately 66 feet before striking a Dodge Charger. Eventually, the Mack came to a rest after pushing the Charger into a wall.

The truck driver, Marlon Diggs, and the driver of the Dodge Charger, Gwenetta Powell, were both killed in the crash. Laurie Williams, the passenger in the Accord, sustained severe injuries.

The family of Powell sued Global. Shortly after, the Williams family intervened and Harris County demanded money for cleanup and repair to the toll plaza. All claims were settled, with the Williams family receiving $4.5 million: $1 million from Mid-Continent and $3.5 million from Evanston. After the Williams’ settlement, Mid-Continent withdrew from litigation, claiming it had reached its policy limit of $1 million. Evanston settled with the Powells for $2.1 million and Harris County for $75,000.

Mid-Continent contributed nothing to the Powell and county settlements. Consequently, Evanston sued Mid-Continent for portions of the payments and 100 percent of its defense costs.

Single event vs. multiple events
In the district court case, Mid-Continent argued that the all of the collisions that occurred after the impact with the Accord were actually a single accident. Evanston argued that each impact was one separate incident subject to Mid-Continent’s $1 million policy limit. Citing Texas law, Mid-Continent claimed that Digg’s negligence was the sole event that led to the multiple crashes. Therefore, the event of negligence is only subject to $1 million policy, and all crashes that occurred consequently were incidental.

The district court ruled that the collisions with the Accord and the Charger were separate incidents because they occurred independently, i.e., the crash with the Accord did not lead to the crash of the Charger. As a result, Mid-Continent was ordered to pay more than $2 million for the various settlements. Accounting for the $1 million already paid, Mid-Continent owed Evanston more than $1 million.

Both insurance companies did not dispute whether or not the first two crashes with the Dodge Ram and Ford F-150 were separate. The disagreement was whether or not the crashes starting with Accord were a single incident or multiple incidents.

Mid-Continent’s policy defines “accident” to include “continuous or repeated exposure to the same conditions resulting in ‘bodily injury’ or ‘property damage.’” Under the “limit of insurance” provision, the policy states that “regardless of the number of covered ‘autos,’ ‘insureds,’ premiums paid, claims made or vehicles involved in the ‘accident,’” the most Mid-Continent would pay for “the total of all damages . . . resulting from any one ‘accident’” was the policy limit of $1 million.

“Evanston argues that a policy’s use of the phrase ‘same conditions’ instead of ‘same general conditions’ requires a stricter similarity in the conditions to establish a single accident,” the appellate court opined. “This is likely incorrect. Texas recognizes that policies which define ‘occurrence’ in the manner described above are to be interpreted more broadly than policies which leave occurrence undefined.”

Essentially, previous court cases have ruled on similar cases based on whether or not the chain of events were broken. In other words, unless the proximate cause for the injuries is continuous and unbroken, there must be more than one occurrence.

Due to the fact the chain of events during the incident in question was unbroken as the Mack truck continuously moved throughout the incident, the appellate court determined the lower court’s ruling that each collision was a separate event “was a mistake.” The Fifth Circuit reversed the decision in favor of Mid-Continent.

 

 

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