A motorcyclist who was thrown backward onto the hood of a car driven by a motorist who failed to stop in time for a red light was not entitled to underinsured motorist coverage from the vehicle driver’s insurer.
It was an interesting argument made by the plaintiff in the case, as uninsured/ underinsured motorist coverage is typically paid by an insurer to its own insured and/ or occupants of that vehicle. It can also be paid to bicyclists or pedestrians by the insurer of the car that struck them because they are not required to have insurance to use the road. In this case before the Alaska Supreme Court, plaintiff alleged he should be entitled to the driver’s UIM coverage as an “insured occupant” because he landed on the car after impact. The liability limits of the vehicle driver’s insurance did not cover the full extent of his damages, essentially rendering the car driver uninsured.
The vehicle driver’s insurer then sued the injured motorcyclist for a declaratory judgment, arguing UIM coverage was not available to him.
The motorcyclist responded, arguing the issue wasn’t ripe for the insurer’s declaratory judgment and thus the court didn’t have any subject matter jurisdiction. He filed a counterclaim seeking his own declaratory judgment in his favor that would assert the coverage was available to him. The trial court found that it did have subject matter jurisdiction, granted both summary judgment and declaratory judgment in favor of the insurer and dismissed the motorcyclist’s third-party claim.
The motorcyclist appealed, but the state supreme court affirmed.
In its review of the case, the court revisited the facts. It was noted that when the rear-end motorcycle accident occurred, the motorcyclist was stopped at a red light. Upon impact, the rider landed for a moment on the hood, windshield and roof of the car before he ultimately landed on the street. The driver and the rider had never met before the incident. Medical bills of the motorcyclist were estimated at $160,000, and he claimed through his attorney that the driver faced personal liability of somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million.
Car driver’s auto insurance policy that allowed for up to $50,000 for property damage and $50,000 for bodily injury liability per person. The policy also contained $50,000 in UM/UIM benefits for injury caused by an accident for which the insurer would be legally entitled to recover from the owner/ operator of an uninsured/ underinsured driver or a hit-and-run. The policy defined “insured” as the policyholder, relative residents of household, any other person who occupied the insured vehicle. That last phrase was key in this case. The policy defined “occupying” to mean inside, upon, along with, getting in or getting out of.
When the motorcyclist sued the car driver for negligence and intentional tort, defendant’s insurer offered to pay the full per person limits of the property damage and bodily injury coverage if plaintiff would fully release all claims against its insured. Motorcyclists’ attorney responded that if the insurer would also offer the full limits of the UIM policy, he would advise his client to release all claims. Insurer refused. Defendant’s attorney also communicated with the insurer, communicating this request and under pressure from plaintiff attorney asking the insurer to pay the $50,000 UIM coverage in light of the excess personal liability exposure faced by his client, as well as climbing litigation costs. The insurer would not yield, saying it would pay the bodily injury and property damage, but not the UIM coverage, insisting that claim was without legal or factual support.
The question of whether that was true was central to whether the matter was going to be settled – and how it would be settled – or whether it would go to trial, but its resolution required separate litigation, which is what the insurer filed.
In its decision to grant the insurer summary judgment, the court determined that the phrasing in the policy that defined “occupying” implied a prior relationship with the insured vehicle. By that interpretation, plaintiff was excluded – remember, the rider and driver had never met before – even though he argued he was “upon” the vehicle. The court also found a reasonable insured would read all the terms of a policy in context, not assigning significant weight to a single word. The court supported this reasoning citing several out-of-state case law that interpreted similar policy provisions (one of the reasons our Fort Lauderdale car accident attorneys sometimes explore crash case rulings outside of Florida).
In its review, the state supreme court found no error.
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Hahn v. GEICO Choice Insurance Company, May 11, 2018, Alaska Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
City Retains Immunity in Catastrophic Injury Motorcycle Crash Case, June 19, 2018, Broward Motorcycle Accident Attorney Blog