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New York’s High Court Expands Scope of Uninsured Motorist Benefits

September 2011

On March 29, 2011, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, issued its opinion in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Langan, 2011 NY Slip Op 02437 (Ct. App. 2011). The Court of Appeals found an innocent insured’s death in a vehicular homicide is an “accident” for purposes of UM (uninsured motorist) coverage.

A pedestrian, Neil Conrad Spicehandler, was fatally injured in a hit-and-run accident on February 12, 2002, when he was struck by a motor vehicle driven by Ronald Popadich.  Mr. Popadich eventually pled guilty to the criminal charge of murder in the second degree, admitting he intentionally caused Mr. Spicehandler’s death. Defendant John Robert Langan, who was the administrator of Mr. Spicehandler’s estate, sought UM benefits through an automobile liability policy issued to Mr. Langan that covered Mr. Spicehandler as an insured.     

Plaintiff State Farm denied the claim based on the injuries being caused by intentional criminal conduct and thus not the result of an “accident” as defined by the State Farm policy. The question on appeal was whether the decedent’s injuries were caused by an accident within the meaning of the policy. State Farm argued that based on prior decisions by the Court, that question should be decided in State Farm’s  favor, due to the admittedly intentional conduct of the tortfeasor who injured the decedent.  The Court had previously held that “the perspective of the injured victim should not be used to determine whether an accident has occurred” (because the injury would then always be an accident from the perspective of a non-consenting victim). However, the Court held that the fact that the victim also was the insured distinguished this case. The Court decision states that “the occurrence must be viewed from the insured’s perspective,” and as such, the occurrence was “an unexpected or unintended event” and thus a covered accident under the policy. 

In deciding in favor of State Farm’s insured, the Court  relied on the “reasonable expectations” of the insured doctrine and the public policy considerations underlying UM coverage. As the opinion notes, the result here is in keeping with a national trend finding UM coverage for innocent insureds injured or killed as a result of the intentional conduct of a third party. Earlier cases decided by the Court of Appeals [e.g., the 1963 decision in McCarthy v. MVAIC, 16 AD2d 35, affd 12 NY2d 922] had held that an intentional assault by a motorist was not an accident for the purpose of determining coverage under an automobile liability policy or MVAIC (statutory coverage for injury caused by uninsured/unidentified motorists) coverage. However, the Court distinguished the McCarthy case on the grounds that it involved MVAIC coverage, not the insured’s own coverage, and that the driver causing the injury was the insured.  

This decision follows an earlier 2006 Court of Appeals case that also took a broad view of coverage for intentional conduct in the context of liability insurance coverage. In Hartford v. Cook, 7 NY3d 131. 137-138 (2006), the defendant insured intentionally shot a man who came into his home with two other men and threatened him with respect to a debt. Hartford, his liability insurer, denied him a defense in a civil action brought on behalf of the decedent. The insured admitted that he had intentionally pointed his gun at and intended to shoot the decedent, but claimed he had acted in self-defense and only intended to injure the decedent. The Court held that for purposes of whether the insured would be defended in a civil action, it was possible the insured “accidently or negligently caused [the decedent’s] death” such that his act would “be considered an ‘occurrence’ within the meaning of the policy and coverage would apply.” As a result, the Court held that Hartford had a duty to defend Mr. Cook.

The recent Langan case is significant for several reasons. Insurers providing automobile liability coverage will now likely face additional claims in cases involving intentional injuries to pedestrians and vehicle occupants, many of which previously would have resulted in a denial of coverage due to the injuries being intentionally caused. A number of these claims could involve substantial injuries, such as those to Mr. Spicehandler in the Langan case.  Finally, it suggests a potential trend by New York’s highest court to take a broader view of the term “accident” (and perhaps other policy terms) when deciding whether insurance coverage is available to an insured.

For additional information, please contact:

Guy Levasseur
Partner-White Plains
914.872.7100
guy.levasseur@wilsonelser.com

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