Innocent insured's death from intentional hit-and-run was 'accidental' under UM policy

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April 26, 2011

Innocent insured's death from intentional hit-and-run was 'accidental' under UM policy 

Fatal injuries to an insured pedestrian who was struck by an uninsured motorist were the result of an “accident,” entitling the policyholder to benefits even though the driver admitted that he intended to strike the insured and later pleaded guilty to murder, the New York Court of Appeals held.

Neil Spicehandler was standing on a street corner when he was struck by motorist Ronald Popadich, who intentionally drove his car into a group of pedestrians. Spicehandler died, and Popadich later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. Spicehandler’s estate sought benefits under his automobile insurance policy’s uninsured motorist (UM) provision, which stated that it provided coverage for injuries caused by “an accident.”

State Farm denied coverage on the ground that Spicehandler’s death was caused by Popadich’s intentional conduct and moved for summary judgment, seeking a declaration that it was not obligated to provide benefits. The trial court granted the motion, and the appellate court affirmed, reasoning that the purpose of UM coverage is to provide a person with the same level of coverage he or she would have had if injured by an insured motorist. Because a standard liability policy would not have covered Popadich’s intentional criminal conduct, the appellate court reasoned, UM coverage was not available.

Modifying that court’s ruling, the state high court noted that although the UM provision does not define the term “accident,” it should not be defined narrowly. To decide whether an event was accidental, a court should analyze the incident from the insured’s point of view to determine whether it was “unexpected, unusual, and unforeseen,” the court said.

From Spicehandler’s perspective, the court reasoned, the hit-and-run incident was an unexpected or unintended event and therefore an accident under the policy. Further, the policy language suggests that such an incident would be covered because it was an accident caused by the use of a motor vehicle that did not have an applicable insurance policy.

A finding that Popadich’s assault on Spicehandler was an accident was consistent with both the reasonable expectation of the insured and the UM provision’s stated purpose of providing coverage against damage caused by uninsured motorists, the court reasoned. It added that its holding was consistent with a national trend toward permitting innocent insureds to recover UM benefits under their own policies where they have been injured through the intentional conduct of another.

Citation: State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Langan, 2011 WL 1118579 (N.Y. Mar. 29, 2011).

Plaintiff counsel: Jennine Di Somma, Florham Park, New Jersey.

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