690 S.E.2d 614 (Ga. 2010), S09Q1846, State Auto Property and Cas. Co. v. Matty

Docket Nº:S09Q1846.
Citation:690 S.E.2d 614, 286 Ga. 611
Opinion Judge:NAHMIAS, Justice.
Party Name:STATE AUTO PROPERTY AND CASUALTY COMPANY v. MATTY et al.
Attorney:Savell & Williams, Jeffrey A. Van Duyne, William E. Turnipseed, Atlanta, for appellant. Daugherty, Crawford, Fuller & Brown, Peter J. Daugherty, Dustin T. Brown, Cash, Krugler & Fredericks, Andrew B. Cash, Susanne W. Langlais, Berry, Shelnut, Day & Hoffman, Peter B. Hoffman, Columbus, for appellees.
Judge Panel:All the Justices concur, except HUNSTEIN, C.J., CARLEY, P.J., and BENHAM, J., who dissent. BENHAM, Justice, dissenting. I am authorized to state that Chief Justice HUNSTEIN and Presiding Justice CARLEY join in this dissent.
Case Date:March 01, 2010
Court:Supreme Court of Georgia
 
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690 S.E.2d 614 (Ga. 2010)

286 Ga. 611

STATE AUTO PROPERTY AND CASUALTY COMPANY

v.

MATTY et al.

No. S09Q1846.

Supreme Court of Georgia.

March 1, 2010

Page 615

Savell & Williams, Jeffrey A. Van Duyne, William E. Turnipseed, Atlanta, for appellant.

Daugherty, Crawford, Fuller & Brown, Peter J. Daugherty, Dustin T. Brown, Cash,

Page 616

Krugler & Fredericks, Andrew B. Cash, Susanne W. Langlais, Berry, Shelnut, Day & Hoffman, Peter B. Hoffman, Columbus, for appellees.

NAHMIAS, Justice.

The United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia has certified a question to this Court about how to determine the meaning of the term " accident" in an automobile liability insurance policy when the word is not expressly defined in the policy and, more specifically, how to determine if there has been one accident or two when an insured vehicle strikes one claimant and then very shortly thereafter strikes another. See State Auto Property & Cas. Co. v. Matty, 2009 WL 2216605 at *5, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61632 at *18 (M.D.Ga. July 20, 2009). Correctly concluding that there is no Georgia case law on point, the district court's order asks which of three general analytical approaches adopted by other jurisdictions for construing the term " accident" Georgia would adopt-the " cause" theory, the " effect" theory, or the " event" theory. Id., 2009 WL 2216605 at *3-5, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61632 at *10-18. For the reasons that follow, we conclude the meaning of the term " accident," when not otherwise defined in setting limits of liability, should be determined using the cause theory. Application of that theory, in turn, will determine the number of accidents and the limits of liability in cases such as this one.

This case involves automobile liability insurance claims. A vehicle driven by State Auto's insured (Rachel Griffin) struck a bicyclist (Matthew Matty), killing him. Griffin's car then struck a second bicyclist (Jeffrey Davis), seriously injuring him. An accident reconstruction expert testified that, assuming the insured had traveled at a constant speed of 55 miles per hour (the speed limit) [286 Ga. 612] from the point she struck the first bicyclist to the point where she struck the second one, it would have taken her " just over a second" to travel the 95 to 115 feet between the two bicyclists.

The insured's policy with State Auto contains a limit of liability for bodily injury of $100,000 for " each accident." The policy also provides, in part, that this limit of liability is the " maximum limit of liability for all damages resulting from any one auto accident. This is the most [State Auto] will pay regardless of the number of: 1. ‘ Insureds'; 2. Claims made; 3. Vehicles or premiums shown in the Declarations; or 4. Vehicles involved in the auto accident." The policy does not define " accident," " each accident," or " any one accident."

State Auto contends that the incident in which Griffin struck the bicyclists (" claimants" ) constitutes one accident and that it is therefore responsible for providing only a single $100,000 limit of coverage. The claimants, on the other hand, contend that there were two accidents and that State Auto is responsible for providing two $100,000 limits of coverage.

1. Before turning to the different theories employed around the country for construing the word " accident" when it is not defined in a liability insurance policy, we address a principal contention of the claimants. They argue that, applying the rule of contract construction that courts may look to statutory and dictionary definitions of a term not defined in a contract to supply the meaning of the term, " accident" must be construed to mean that two different impacts constitute two different accidents. They note that " accident" is defined in OCGA § 1-3-3(2) to mean " an event which takes place without one's foresight or expectation or design." Because that statutory definition does not help, the claimants then look to dictionary definitions of one of the words used in the statute, noting that " event" is defined variously as " [a] phenomenon or occurrence located at a single point in space-time," The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.2006), and as " any incident, good or bad," Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (2006). The claimants assert that, under either of these definitions, two impacts cannot be considered one " event" and therefore one " accident." Such interweaving of inconsistent definitions of words defined in dictionaries with words defined in statutes is a slender reed upon which to base a clear meaning of a contractual term. In any event, these definitions do not dispense with

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the rule that contracts must be construed as a whole, Sherman & Hemstreet, Inc. v. Cincinnati Ins. Co., 277 Ga. 734, 737, 594 S.E.2d 648 (2004), or with the cardinal rule of construction, which is to ascertain the intent of the parties, OCGA § 13-2-3.

The policy at issue in this case, viewed as a whole, shows a clear intent to limit liability in accidents involving multiple vehicles. The [286 Ga. 613] term " each accident" appears in the limitation of liability section of the policy, which provides that the limit of liability of $100,000 for " each accident" is " the most [State Auto] will pay regardless of the number of: 1. ‘ Insureds'; 2. Claims made; 3. Vehicles or premiums shown in the Declarations; or 4. Vehicles involved in the auto accident." Automobile accidents involving multiple vehicles...

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