Oregon Supreme Court Rules on Who Should Determine an "Accident."

Joe Di Bartolomeo
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Joe Di Bartolomeo is a top rated personal injury lawyer helping Oregon and Washington families
Posted on Feb 18, 2014

The Oregon Supreme Court recently explored the meaning of the word “accident” in the context of statutes regulating Oregon’s Uninsured and Underinsured motorist provisions.  The key issue in this case was whether or not the injured plaintiff suffered injuries from one “accident,” or two separate accidents.  This question was key, because the coverage available with underinsured motorist claims is determined on an accident by accident basis.

Underinsured motorist coverage is available when the damages sustained in any one accident are not sufficiently covered by the responsible motorist’s liability insurance policy. For example, if you were injured as the result of a negligent driver with only $25,000.00 coverage, but your claim exceeded the available amount of coverage, then your insurance policy may provide underinsured motorist coverage, which is essentially insurance against the underinsured. This coverage is available on a “per accident” basis.

In this particular case, the plaintiff was riding as a passenger in a vehicle on Interstate 5 when a car in front of the plaintiff’s car, lost control. The driver of plaintiff’s car ran into the car that had lost control, and the vehicle came to rest. After the vehicle came to rest, minutes passed, and another vehicle driving by struck the plaintiff’s vehicle, causing the plaintiff further injury.

The case went to a trial, and the plaintiff argued that because there were two separate “accidents,” that there were two separate underinsured motorist or UIM claims. Two separate claims would provide for $1,000,000.00 in coverage, as opposed to $500,000.00 in coverage for a single accident.  The plaintiff’s injuries were significant, and the jury decided that her damages exceeded $940,000.00, but did not address the number of "accidents" that occurred.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals for Oregon found that the definition of “accident” encompassed all of the events surrounding plaintiff’s injury, meaning that the two separate collisions added up to only one accident. The Oregon Supreme Court took another view.

First, the Oregon Supreme Court set the issue straight, stating that the real question was not so much what the parties intended by entering into the auto insurance contract, but what the Legislature intended when it passed the particular provision that required Underinsured motorist coverage.

Reaching back to the 1951 Oregon Assembly’s Legislative session, the Court attempted to discern what was meant by the word “accident.” After tracing the history of auto insurance legislation, the Supreme Court found that the intended meaning of the word “accident” could be determined from the model statutes that were used to write and enact this part of the insurance code in 1951. 

The Court then examined case law existing at the time of the original enactment of this part of the insurance code, and eventually found that whether or not a claim involved a single accident, or more than one accident, was essentially for a jury to decide. Because the jury in this particular case had not tackled the issue of whether not there was only one accident or two separate accidents, the Oregon Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court for the jury to determine the number of accidents involved in this particular claim.

If you have questions about what your insurance policy provides for if you have been injured by an uninsured motorist, call us at 503-325-8600.  We have handled many claims involving uninsured and underinsured motorists, and can help you find out where you stand.