As with almost all liability insurance policies, auto insurance policies contain provisions that limit liability. This provides a maximum amount that can be provided in case of a single “accident” or “occurrence.”
Some of these policies indicate a per-person cap on damages awarded for bodily injury resulting from “each occurrence.” This seems like a fairly straightforward concept. However, our Tuscaloosa car accident attorneys recognize there are circumstances, particularly when multiple plaintiffs or vehicles are involved, where it can be claimed the injuries arose out of multiple occurrences. This is true even when the primary catalyst for a multi-vehicle crash was the negligence of a single driver. That may have been the “trigger,” but subsequent wrecks could potentially be considered separate “occurrences” for insurance purposes.
Typically, the question of whether there have been multiple occurrences is a matter of law, to be decided by the court in advance of a trial. In most cases, the determination of the number of occurrences involves the court weighing whether there was repeated or continuous exposure to certain conditions.
The reason this determination matters so much is because a determination of multiple occurrences will ultimately mean larger damages awards for each individual plaintiff. If a liability limit allows for up to $50,000 per accident and the court finds there was only one accident, $50,000 will be the most that the plaintiffs could collectively receive. However, if the court finds there were multiple occurrences, the plaintiffs could be entitled to receive $50,000 each.
Insurers have tried to limit the scope of an accident or occurrence by broadly adopting the definition that a single occurrence is exposure to the “same general conditions.”
Courts, for the most part, will look at time and place elements, as well as the exact source of injuries. One, uninterrupted proximate cause will generally be found to be a single accident. However, the cause is considered “interrupted” when there is a separate, independent cause cited.
For example, the driver of Vehicle 1 might lose control of his or her car on the highway, smashing into a guardrail and slamming into Vehicle 2. That is one occurrence. But if the speeding driver in Vehicle 3 fails to stop in time to avoid the collision ahead and ends up swerving into Vehicle 4, causing serious injury to that driver, the second crash could be seen as a separate occurrence. Each case is going to be weighed based on the individual facts.
In the recent case of Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. AXIS Insurance Co., et al., the underlying action was not an automobile crash, but rather the tragic drowning death of two boys at a summer camp. The boys could not swim, yet were taken to the pool area anyway. Later, after the group left the pool area, the boys were missing. They were later found side-by-side at the bottom of the deep end.
The families sued the organization, which held three separate insurance policies. They asserted that each drowning constituted a separate occurrence.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected this argument, citing the singular source of alleged negligence (failure to supervise) and the fact that the boys were found in the same place and were believed to have died at almost exactly the same time.
Here, it was not enough to show multiple injuries or deaths had occurred. The source or cause of those injuries would have had to be separate in order for the court to reach a finding of multiple occurrences.
Fellowship of Christian Athletes v. AXIS Insurance Co., et al, July 11, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit