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Applying Georgia Law, Eleventh Circuit Affirms Multi-Vehicle Collision Constituted a Single “Accident”

Written by: Elizabeth Fulton Morrison, Esq.

On October 15, 2015, a truck driver crossed the center line and collided with two different vehicles, one after the other. The facts established that the truck driver truck did not correct the truck’s path before striking the second vehicle.

Grange Insurance, who insured the truck, sought injunctive relief in the Northern District of Georgia for purposes of determining its obligations under the commercial auto policies issued to the two trucking companies involved in the accident.[1] The district court held and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that under Georgia law, the underlying events constituted one accident. Grange Mutual Casualty Company v. Slaughter, 958 F.3d 1050 (May 1, 2020).

The court’s rationale that the two collisions constituted one accident was based on the Georgia Supreme Court’s adoption of the “cause theory” to define the word “accident” for coverage purposes.  The Grange policies in this case defined accident “to include continuous or repeated exposure to the same conditions resulting in bodily injury or property damage.” (emphasis added).

Defendants argued that the cause theory did not apply because “accident” was a defined term under the Grange policies and that any time a vehicle separately collides with two other vehicles, even if only a single second has passed, there have been two accidents. The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument for two reasons. First, the Grange policies’ use of the word “include” did not provide a comprehensive definition as to what an accident “is” which required the court to fill in the gaps.  Second, the policies contained a limit of insurance clause that contemplated multiple vehicles could be involved in a single accident. If the court adopted Defendants’ arguments, it would eliminate this language from the contract.  As the policies were subject to Georgia law, the court was required to apply the cause theory.

The cause theory determines whether, after the cause of the initial collision, the driver regained control of the vehicle before a subsequent collision, so that it can be said there was a second intervening cause and therefore a second accident. See, State Auto Property and Casualty Co. v. Matty, 286 Ga. 611, 690 S.E.2d 614 (2010). If the driver did not regain control, there was “one proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause which resulted in all of the injuries and damage.” See,  Id.

In adopting the cause theory, the Eleventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s holding that the accidents were the result of the “same conditions” because they happened 1) on the same day; 2) at the same time; 3) on the same road; and 4) with the same lighting, weather, road and traffic conditions. Only one accident report was prepared and the reporting and diagram prepared by the officer “made clear” that a single accident occurred. Even viewed in the light most favorable to Defendants, the court concluded the evidence indicated that the truck moved into the southbound lane and, as an uninterrupted consequence of that move, hit both vehicles.

 


[1] The driver was working for one company, but the truck was insured on its sister’s company’s policy. As a separate issue, the court was tasked with determining the legal status of the truck for purposes of determining which Grange policy provided coverage.