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March 6, 2024

Several years ago, I published a blog regarding the number of occurrences triggered under a liability policy for a motor vehicle accident in Florida. Other states also addressed this issue. Recently, the Federal District Court for the Western District of Washington, in Schuessler v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co., 2024 WL 580961 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 13, 2024) addressed this issue. Ms. Schuessler drove through a construction zone, and Mr. Zinn approached from the opposite direction. Mr. Zinn crossed the center line and struck Ms. Schuessler’s vehicle head-on, causing Ms. Schuessler’s vehicle to spin and strike a barrier. Thereafter, Ms. Russell’s vehicle, also traveling on the same road, struck Ms. Schuessler’s vehicle. The police found Mr. Zinn at fault because he was texting at the time of the accident.

State Farm issued Ms. Schuessler a personal automobile policy that provided $100,000 in underinsured motorist (UM) coverage per person and per accident. State Farm paid its per accident policy limits to Ms. Schuessler. However, claiming she was involved in two separate accidents, one with Mr. Zinn and one with Ms. Russell, she demanded UM policy limits for both accidents. When State Farm refused to issue the UM limits for the second purported accident, she alleged breach of contract, a violation of the Insurance Fair Conduct Act, and a violation of the Washington Consumer Protection Act. State Farm moved for summary judgment, arguing that the incident constituted one accident under the policy.

Under Washington law, multiple collisions constitute one accident for insurance policy purposes when “the collisions or injuries were all caused by a single, uninterrupted proximate cause.”  State Farm’s accident reconstruction expert determined that Mr. Zinn caused both collisions, and that Ms. Russell could not have avoided the collision with Ms. Schuessler’s vehicle. Because no evidence existed for a reasonable jury to find that Ms. Russell negligently caused the collision with Ms. Schuessler’s vehicle, the court granted summary judgment in favor of State Farm. The court found that only one accident occurred and held that only one policy limit applied.

As a refresher, Florida courts use the “cause theory” when determining the number of accidents. Under this theory, “the number of accidents is determined by the number of causes of the injuries, with the court asking if ‘[t]here was but one proximate, uninterrupted, and continuing cause which resulted in all of the injuries and damage.’” [1] If multiple accidents occur separated in time or space, the accidents likely constitute more than one accident or occurrence. Conversely, if an accident is part of one continuous sequence of events with very little separation in time and in the same location, it likely constitutes a single accident or occurrence. 

It is interesting how courts in different states address the number of accidents when analyzing coverage under an insurance policy. As usual, you have to know your jurisdiction.

For any further questions, please contact J. Blake Hunter.


[1]State Auto Prop. & Cas. Co. v. Matty, 286 Ga. 611, 690 S.E.2d 614 (Ga. 2010) (quoting Appalachian Ins. Co. v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 676 F.2d 56, 61 (3d Cir. 1982)); Belt v. USAA Cas. Ins. Co., 2021 WL 926536 (Fla. 4th DCA 2021).