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State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. John Robert Langan

March 29, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lippman, Chief Judge:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

At issue in this appeal is whether the insured decedent, the victim of an intentional crime, was injured as the result of an accident within the meaning of the uninsured motorist endorsement and certain other provisions of the insured's policy. Since the occurrence must be viewed from the insured's perspective, we conclude that it was indeed an accident and that the insured is entitled to benefits under the policy provisions at issue.

Decedent, Neil Conrad Spicehandler, was struck by a vehicle at 7th Avenue and 32nd Street in Manhattan on February 12, 2002. He sustained a compound fracture of his left lower leg, requiring surgery, and died from complications shortly after the operation. Decedent was one of many who were injured when the driver, Ronald Popadich, intentionally drove his vehicle into pedestrians. Popadich later pleaded guilty to second degree murder and admitted that he intended to cause Spicehandler's death.

Decedent was an insured under an automobile liability policy purchased by defendant Langan through plaintiff State Farm. As the administrator of decedent's estate, Langan made a claim seeking to recover benefits under the policy's uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM) endorsement, mandatory personal injury protection endorsement (PIP endorsement) and death, dismemberment and loss of sight endorsement (Coverage S).*fn1

The policy's UM endorsement provides that it "will pay all sums that the insured or the insured's legal representative shall be legally entitled to recover as damages from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle because of bodily injury sustained by the insured, caused by an accident arising out of such uninsured motor vehicle's ownership, maintenance or use" subject to relevant policy exclusions. The PIP endorsement and Coverage S likewise state that they will pay benefits for injuries sustained as the result of "an accident." These endorsements exclude coverage on several bases, but none specifically excludes coverage for an injury that results from intentional conduct. State Farm denied and disclaimed liability because it determined, as relevant here, that decedent's death was caused not by an accident, but by the intentional conduct of the operator of the vehicle.

State Farm commenced this declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration that it was not obligated to provide benefits in connection with decedent's death. Defendant answered and counterclaimed, requesting a declaration that State Farm was required to provide coverage under the policy. Plaintiff's motion and defendant's cross motion for summary judgment were denied because the parties had not, at that point, provided the court with information regarding the outcome of the criminal action against Popadich, which the court deemed "essential" to determining whether decedent's injuries were caused by an intentional act. The Appellate Division upheld the portion of the Supreme Court order that denied summary judgment on the issue of whether the incident was covered by the policy, finding that there was insufficient proof to determine whether decedent had been the victim of an intentional crime, but that, if he had, the incident would not be covered (18 AD3d 860, 862 [2d Dept 2005]).

After Popadich was convicted of second degree murder, State Farm renewed its motion for summary judgment, again seeking a declaration that it was not required to provide benefits under the policy. Langan opposed the motion and cross-moved for summary judgment, urging that whether the incident was an accident within the meaning of the policy must be determined from the perspective of the insured. Supreme Court granted State Farm's motion and denied Langan's cross motion on the basis of Popadich's conviction.

On appeal, a majority of the Appellate Division modified to declare that State Farm was required to provide benefits under the Mandatory PIP and Coverage S endorsements and, as so modified, affirmed (55 AD3d 281 [2d Dept 2008]). The Court determined that State Farm was not required to provide UM benefits because the purpose of statutorily required uninsured motorist coverage is to provide an individual with the same level of coverage he or she would be entitled to if injured in an accident with an insured motorist covered by an applicable policy. Since a standard liability policy would not have covered Popadich for his intentional criminal conduct, the Court found that Langan's UM coverage was not applicable under the circumstances presented here. However, the Court determined that in other contexts it was appropriate to determine whether a particular event was an accident from the insured's point of view, that the incident was clearly unexpected from decedent's perspective and that, as a result, State Farm was required to provide coverage under the PIP and S Coverage endorsements.

Two Justices dissented in part and would have affirmed Supreme Court's order declaring that State Farm was not required to provide coverage. The dissent agreed that Langan was not entitled to UM benefits under current law based on Popadich's intentional conduct, but observed that there had been a recent national trend to allow for coverage in similar circumstances and that strong public policy considerations weighed in favor of coverage. The dissent would have denied PIP and S Coverage benefits based on the law of the case and, in any event, disagreed that the same term should be interpreted differently within the same policy. Both parties appeal pursuant to leave granted by the Appellate Division, which certified for our review the question of whether its order was properly made. We modify and answer the certified question in the negative.

This appeal turns on whether decedent's injuries were caused by an accident within the meaning of the policy. Although the endorsements at issue do not define the term "accident," we have previously held that it is not to be "given a narrow, technical definition," but should be interpreted according to how it would be understood by the average person (Miller v Continental Ins. Co., 40 NY2d 675, 676 [1976]). We have determined that, for purposes of automobile insurance policies, the term "accident" means an event typically involving violence or the application of external force (see Michaels v City of Buffalo, 85 NY2d 754, 758 [1995]). In order to determine whether a particular event was "accidental, 'it is customary to look at the casualty from the point of view of the insured, to see whether or not . . . it was unexpected, unusual and unforeseen'" (Miller, 40 NY2d at 677 [citation omitted]). Although we have noted that the perspective of the injured victim should not be used to determine whether an accident has occurred, "'[b]ecause an injury is always fortuitous to a non-consenting victim'" (Michaels, 85 NY2d at 759 [citation omitted]), here we have the situation where the victim is also the insured.

It is clear that, viewed from the insured's perspective, the occurrence was an unexpected or unintended event -- and therefore an "accident" -- even though Popadich admittedly intended to strike decedent with the vehicle. The language of the policy also suggests that this type of situation would be covered as it was an accident caused by the use of a motor vehicle that did not have an applicable insurance policy. Significantly, Insurance Department regulations require that an automobile owner's liability insurance policy contain a provision specifying "that assault and battery shall be deemed an accident unless committed by or at the direction of the insured" (11 NYCRR § 60-1.1 [f]). Although the provisions at issue here do not involve liability coverage, the regulation is relevant to the understanding of the extent of coverage provided by the endorsements.

The argument against requiring coverage, advanced by State Farm and relied upon by the Appellate Division, is based on the general principle that mandatory uninsured motorist benefits are meant to provide coverage that is coextensive with, and not greater than, that afforded by a standard liability policy. They rely on our statement that the purpose of mandatory UM benefits is "'to provide the insured with the same level of protection he or she would provide to others were the insured a tortfeasor in a bodily injury accident'" (Raffellini v State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 9 NY3d 196, 204 [2007], quoting Matter of Prudential Prop. & Cas. Co. v Szeli, 83 NY2d 681, 687 [1994]).

In support of its position, State Farm relies on McCarthy v Motor Veh. Acc. Indem. Corp. (16 AD2d 35 [4th Dept 1962], affd 12 NY2d 922 [1963]), a case where the plaintiff-victim was injured when the insured motorist committed an intentional assault against her using his vehicle. After the insurer denied coverage because the occurrence was not an accident within the meaning of the policy, plaintiff sought to recover under the policy's MVAIC endorsement -- a statutorily required endorsement intended to afford coverage to a person injured by an uninsured or unidentified motorist, equal to that available to one injured by a motorist covered by an applicable liability policy (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 38). MVAIC is funded by assessments levied against all of the insurance companies licensed to conduct business in the state (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 39). McCarthy held that since an intentional assault committed by an insured motorist was not an accident subject to coverage under the standard liability policy, such an occurrence would likewise be excluded from coverage under the MVAIC endorsement (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 43). The Court also determined that allowing recovery under MVAIC would be inconsistent with the purpose for which the special fund had been established (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 44).

This case differs from McCarthy in two important respects. First, UM coverage, although required by statute, is part of the insured's own policy -- a policy that the insured selected and for which he pays premiums. Benefits received through coverage under the UM endorsement do not come out of a State fund. Second, the insured is the victim in this case, not the tortfeasor, ...

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