Woodland Hills accident attorney Barry P. Goldberg tirelessly looks for every available source of recovery, especially in serious injury cases. Often an accident has many possible causes. The obvious causes usually involve other negligent drivers, road conditions and faulty equipment. Many lawyers without insurance coverage experience fall into a trap and argue that the owner of a vehicle is both responsible for the negligent driving and for the negligent maintenance of a vehicle—such as worn out tires. Inevitably, they argue that the per claim limit should be increased to reflect the multiple causes of the accident. This analysis lacks an understanding of the actual policy language and how it is interpreted.
Some lawyers attempt to rely on State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Kohl (1982) 131 Cal.App.3d 1031, 1035 (Kohl) for the assertion that two accidents occurred. The Court in Kohl reasoned: “In determining whether, under a particular set of circumstances, there was one accident or occurrence, the so-called ‘causation’ theory is applied. Hence a single uninterrupted course of conduct which gives rise to a number of injuries or incidents of property damage is one ‘accident’ or ‘occurrence.’ On the other hand, if the original cause is interrupted or replaced by another cause, then there is more than one ‘accident’ or ‘occurrence.’” A lawyer might argue that reckless driving “interrupted or replaced” the failure to maintain the tires resulting in two accidents.
However, most insurance policies only require the insurer to pay all sums “which the insured shall become legally obligated to pay as damages because of . . . bodily injury sustained by any person . . . .” Without injury, the insured is not liable, and thus there is no liability insurance coverage. As Justice Cardozo famously said and we learned in law school: “Negligence is not actionable unless it involves the invasion of a legally protected interest, the violation of a right. ‘Proof of negligence in the air, so to speak, will not do.’” (Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. (1928) 248 N.Y. 339, 341.) Thus, the insureds would be “legally obligated to pay” damages only if their respective conduct was a proximate cause of the injury, i.e., if the failure to maintain the tires and the reckless driving were concurrent causes of the injury. But if the causes are concurrent, a fortiori, the “original cause” is not “interrupted or replaced any another cause.” Under the Kohl reasoning , there would be only one accident.
Similarly, in Hyer v. Inter-Insurance Exchange, Etc. (1926) 77 Cal.App. 343, once described as the “leading California case” on interpreting policy limits for “‘any one auto accident,’” (United Services Automobile Assn. v. Baggett (1989) 209 Cal.App.3d 1387, 1392 (Baggett)), the insured’s vehicle hit two cars in successive separate collisions, but the court held there was only one accident because the insured’s vehicle went out of control after the first collision. (Hyer, at pp. 345-346, 348.) The insured’s chauffeur’s negligent driving “was the proximate cause of both collisions” (id. at p. 347; see id. at pp. 345-346), “which, in natural and continuous sequence, unbroken by any efficient intervening cause, produced the” second collision (id. at p. 347).
In Baggett, supra, 209 Cal.App.3d 1387, an “insured’s vehicle struck the decedent’s vehicle from behind on an expressway. After driving a short distance farther, decedent stopped her vehicle in the center lane and insured did likewise. They both left their vehicles and briefly discussed the accident. Within a minute, a third vehicle struck insured’s vehicle from behind, driving insured’s vehicle into decedent and her vehicle and killing decedent.” (Id. at p. 1390.) In an underlying action, the decedent’s heirs “alleged that insured was negligent in (1) driving his vehicle, (2) stopping it without displaying hazard or operating lights or setting out reflective devices or flares or directing traffic around the stopped vehicles, and (3) guiding decedent to a position of danger.” Baggett held there was one accident for purposes of the insurance policy’s limitation of liability coverage (id. at p. 1392): “If each negligent act or omission were regarded as a separate accident, there arguably would be numerous accidents based on heirs’ characterization of insured’s negligence.” (Id. at p. 1394; see Government Employees Ins. Co. v. Oliver (1987) 192 Cal.App.3d 12, 14 [rejecting insureds’ contention the insurance company had to pay the uninsured motorist policy limit for each negligent uninsured motorist involved in a multiple vehicle accident].)
Based on the foregoing, the case law, as well as a common sense interpretation, requires a conclusion that most concurrent proximate causes of an accident implicate a single policy limit. Therefore, in any serious accident where there is any question about the possibility of multiple causes and insurance policy interpretation, it is highly recommended that an experienced accident attorney with insurance coverage know-how be contacted. Only attorneys with insurance coverage experience can find possible ways to increase all available sources of recovery.