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Insurance Coverage: Two Impacts, One Accident

June 25, 2021

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<p style="text-align: justify;">In <em><a href="https://www.wcmlaw.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Belt.pdf">Belt</a> v. USAA</em>, Ms. Belt was sideswiped by a hit &amp; run driver, spun out of control and, while doing so, was then struck a second time. The second driver stopped to render aid and, true to the adage “no good deed goes unpunished,” was sued by Belt.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Belt’s auto policy provided uninsured motorist benefits and defined an uninsured vehicle as one with inadequate insurance, including hit &amp; run vehicles. The policy also restricted the per accident recovery to one limit, regardless of the number of vehicles involved.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Since the driver was uninsured, and believing that two impacts equaled two accidents, Belt demanded payment of two limits. Belt also said since the policy provided insurance for both hit &amp; run and uninsured vehicles, and because she had been hit by an uninsured driver and a hit &amp; run driver, she was entitled to two limits.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">USAA paid one limit to settle all damages arising out of the hit &amp; run “accident.” Belt then sought a determination that she was entitled to collect a second limit. The trial judge instructed the jury that they were to decide if there was one or two accidents, and if there was but one continuous, ongoing sequence of events, there was one accident. The judge instructed that in reaching their decision, the jury should consider factors such as the time &amp; distance between the impacts and whether Belt regained control of her car before the second impact.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The jury found that there was one accident and Belt appealed, arguing that the jury instruction was wrong because it gave the jury too much information. Belt also argued that since “accident” was not defined, and since the definition of uninsured included both the hit &amp; run and uninsured drivers, the policy was ambiguous, and she was entitled to collect two limits.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">The appellate court rejected Belt’s ambiguity argument, explaining that the definition of uninsured vehicle did not alter the policy’s limitation on the available coverage. The appellate court also found that while no other Florida court had considered the issue, the jury instruction was proper because whether there was one accident or two hinged on whether the impacts were separated by time &amp; distance and that Belt’s control over her car was important to that decision. In doing so, the court established under Florida law that in multi-impact, auto collision cases, two impacts that are part of one continuous, ongoing sequence of events will be considered one accident, and that in determining whether there was one accident or two, the courts will consider factors such as the time &amp; distance between the impacts and whether control of the vehicle was regained between the impacts.</p>
<p style="text-align: justify;">Thanks to Chip George for his contribution to this post. Please contact <a href="mailto:Haquino@wcmlaw.com">Heather Aquino</a> with any questions.</p>

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