How do you know if you’ve been “involved” in an automobile accident? Must you actually collide with somebody to be officially part of the accident? What if you’re nowhere near the collision by the time it happened? What if you simply forgot to use your turn signal and veered out of traffic into a store parking lot? What if this small error caused all the cars that were traveling behind you to crash into each-other, and you blithely drive away leaving death and destruction in your wake? Were you “involved?”
In the case of State Farm v. Nelson, 296 Ga. App. 47 (2009) the jury was asked to untangle the effects of just such a lapse. In the end they laid the blame for a terrible accident squarely at the feet of an unidentified man, the Parties named John Doe.
A woman was attempting to make a left-hand turn from traffic and was stopped as she waited for the oncoming traffic to clear. The car immediately behind her suddenly veered away from traffic to the right and drove into a parking lot. The truck behind this unidentified vehicle driven by an unknown person, was taken by surprise and, unable to stop, crashed into the rear-end of the first woman’s vehicle killing her child.
The family sued the rear-ending driver and also the carrier of their own uninsured motorist policy for the wrongful death of the child.
Attorneys for the insurance carrier contended that the John Doe car, driven by the uninsured motorist could not have been “involved” in the accident because no collision occurred between his vehicle and any of the others. Interestingly, the jury found otherwise. They awarded the plaintiffs $1,106,165.02 finding that the driver who rear-ended the plaintiffs was 10 percent guilty and the John Doe driver was 90 percent at fault.
The insurance company asked the court to over-rule the verdict of the jury, again claiming that the uninsured motorist could not be held accountable unless there was physical contact between the vehicles. Not so, according to Georgia Law.
Georgia’s law regarding uninsured motorists says: “in order for an insured to recover damages as a result of the acts of an uninsured motorist, there must be actual physical contact between the vehicle operated by the unknown person and the person or property of the insured.” Such physical contact is not required, however, “if the description by the claimant of how the occurrence occurred is corroborated by an eyewitness to the occurrence other than the claimant.”
The fact that there were several eye-witnesses to the accident who testified about the involvement of the John Doe vehicle made the verdict and the award perfectly valid. The Georgia Court of Appeals agreed.
Going up against a huge insurance company in a court of law as the people in this case did means the other side will pull out all the stops to keep from paying even legitimate claims. Even though this family faithfully paid their uninsured motorist premiums, attorneys fought long and hard to try to invalidate their rightful claim. Sadly, the biggest insurers are the most dogged. Fortunately for this family, the law was in their corner.