Betts Patterson Mines

It’s No Accident: Federal Court Finds No Coverage for Motorcycle Collision

In a published case, Judge Ricardo Martinez of the Western District of Washington recently ruled as a matter of law that a covered accident did not occur when a drunk insured motorcyclist collided with a car because the insured, while traveling at twice the speed limit, deliberately chased another motorcyclist. Williams v. Life Ins. Co. of N. Am., ___ F. Supp. 3d ___, No. C14-0866 RSM, 2015 WL 4604100 (W.D. Wash. July 30, 2015). Although the case involves a first-party policy, it also has implications for the meaning of the term “accident” under third-party policies.

The insured, Michael Williams, was a member of the UMF motorcycle club. (Wisely, the court identified the club only by its acronym. Those tempted to Google the name should be warned: the UMF club’s website is NSFW.) Williams and his fellow club members met at a bar in Gig Harbor to commemorate a deceased UMF rider. An hour later, the group rode to a bar in Belfair, where Williams drank several beers.

After leaving the second bar, the club rode west on state highway 106, where the speed limit is 40 miles an hour. A group of “sports style motorcycles” tried to pass the UMF group. To avoid riding into the oncoming lane on a corner, two of the sports motorcyclists were forced to ride very close to the UMF Group. Angered by this maneuver, Williams got into an argument with one of the sports bike riders. The rider sped away, and Williams gave chase. Both stopped in the oncoming lane, where Williams again confronted the other motorcyclist, who then tried speeding away a second time.

Williams resumed his chase. While riding at 80 miles an hour around a curve, he lost control of his motorcycle and slammed into a car traveling in the oncoming lane. Williams died on impact, and the driver of the car was seriously injured. Tests showed Williams’s blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. A pathologist classified the manner of the death as a traffic accident.

Williams’s widow sought payment under an accidental death and dismemberment policy issued by the Life Insurance Company of North America. The policy provided that the insurer would pay for death caused by an accident. As is often the case, the policy did not define “accident.” After the insurer denied payment, the widow sued the insurer for coverage and violation of the Insurance Fair Conduct Act. The insurer filed a summary judgment motion on two grounds: (1) the collision was not an accident because Williams acted deliberately and (2) losses resulting from the commission of a felony are excluded. Here we only address the first reason.

Where a policy does not define “accident,” courts look to the common law to define that term. Generally, if the insured intends the conduct but not the resulting harm, the incident is not an accident if the insured knew or should have known facts from which a prudent person would have concluded that the harm was reasonably foreseeable. 2015 WL 4604100, at *6 (citing State Farm Fire & Cas. Co. v. Ham & Rye, LLC, 142 Wn. App. 6, 16–17, 174 P.3d 1175 (2007)). In granting the insurer’s summary judgment motion, Judge Martinez ruled that Williams’s death was the foreseeable result of his deliberate actions because he chose to consume several drinks and then ride twice the posted speed limit on a winding road on which he knew there was oncoming traffic.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that Williams did not intend to collide with the car and that a ruling for the insurer would invalidate coverage for all accidents. First, the plaintiff failed to show that both the means and the result were accidental; while Williams may have not have intended the result, he doubtlessly intended to ride well above the speed limit while intoxicated. Second, Williams’s subjective understanding was irrelevant because whether an event is an accident is judged from what a prudent person would consider reasonably foreseeable. The court also found that its decision was in accord with those of other federal courts, which hold that injury or death resulting from driving under the influence is not the result of an accident because a reasonable person would know that such behavior poses a serious risk of injury or death. Id. at *7–9 (citing Gaddy v. Hartford Life Ins. Co., 218 F. Supp. 2d 1123, 1125–28 (E.D. Mo. 2002)).

The takeaway from this case is that injury or death caused by drunk or highly aggressive driving may not be accidental. It also helps clarify “accident,” which Washington courts have interpreted inconsistently. Under this case, the reasonably foreseeable results of a deliberate act are not accidental and thus not covered. While the case addresses a first-party policy, its reasoning should apply to third-party policies that use the term “accident.” Indeed, the case on which Judge Martinez primarily relied, Ham & Rye LLC, involved a third-party policy. While federal cases do not bind Washington courts (or even other judges within the same district), they should find Williams persuasive.

Matthew Munson