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Florida Fourth DCA rules in UIM motor vehicle negligence case in which plaintiff’s vehicle was allegedly struck in succession by two vehicles that trial court did not err in instructing jury that multiple impacts can constitute one “accident” under UIM policy if there is one proximate, uninterrupted and continuing cause of injury

On March 10, 2021, in Belt v. USAA Casualty Insurance Company, No. 4D20-339, the Florida Fourth DCA affirmed a final judgment for the defendant in anuninsured motor vehicle negligence case, rejecting a claim by the plaintiff that the trial court erred in instructing the jury regarding whether the incident amounted to one accident or two, a finding required to determine the extent of uninsured motorist benefits. While travelling on I-95, the plaintiff had been struck by a pickup truck, a hit and run “phantom” vehicle traveling next to her, and then struck by another vehicle driven by an uninsured motorist. She alleged that these were two separate accidents and sought to recover against USAA, her insurer, under her uninsured motorist insurance coverage for damages caused by both the hit and run driver and by the uninsured driver. In effect, the plaintiff was attempting to double the insurance limits in the case, which applied to “each accident” for which a claim was made. The trial court’s jury instruction stated that multiple impacts can constitute one accident if there is one proximate, uninterrupted and continuing cause of injury. In evaluating this instruction, the Fourth DCA looked to Koikos v. Travelers Insurance Co., 849 So. 2d 263 (Fla. 2003), in which the Florida Supreme Court applied the “cause theory” in a negligent security case involving an occurrence-based insurance policy which defined an occurrence as “an accident, including continuous or repeated exposure to substantially the same general harmful conditions.” Applying the cause theory, the Florida Supreme Court concluded that “in the absence of clear language to the contrary [in the insurance policy], when the insured is being sued for negligent failure to provide security, ‘occurrence’ is defined by the immediate injury-producing act and not by the underlying tortious omission.” Noting that there are no Florida cases which discuss the definition of “accident” in the context of an auto insurance policy, the Fourth DCA also cited State Auto Property & Casualty Co. v. Matty, 286 Ga. 611, 690 S.E.2d 614 (Ga. 2010), a Georgia Supreme Court case which considered the definition in a case involving the liability coverage of an automobile policy. The trial court in Matty had employed the same cause theory relied upon by the Florida Supreme Court in Koikos and was the source of the instruction relied upon by the trial court in this case.

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