The Fourth Circuit on "Accidents" and Drunken Driving

The Fourth Circuit on "Accidents" and Drunken Driving

 The issue in Johnson v. American United Life Insurance Co. [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers], decided last week by the Fourth Circuit. was whether the Plaintiff's husband's death from a car wreck while driving intoxicated was an "accident" under his life insurance policy from Defendant American United which provided "Accidental Death and Dismemberment" coverage .

The policy didn't contain a definition for an "accident," making it necessary for the Court to interpret the term. It noted in passing that "[t]here are probably not many words which have caused courts as much trouble as 'accident' and 'accidental.'" Op. at n.1.

In the end, Judge Traxler ruled that the dead husband was covered by the policy, though he said that:

Reaching this result gives us no great pleasure. Drunk driving is reckless, irresponsible conduct that produces tragic consequences for the thousands it touches annually. But our task in this case is not to promote personal responsibility or enforce good driving habits. We must focus on the terms of the policies issued under the Plan and determine whether Richard died as a result of an accident without 'allowing our moral judgments about drunk driving to influence our
review.'

Op. 3-4.

The Court's analysis began with two competing definitions of the term "accident."  The Plaintiff argued that the "most natural and common understanding of the term . . . is an unintentional, unplanned incident that occurs as a result of a careless error."  Op. at 12.  She said that unless an intoxicated driver intended to crash his car and die, that his death would be an accident under the policy.

Another definition of "accident" would "exclude any incident where the consequences of intentional conduct are expected or reasonably forseeable."  Op. at 13.

Finding the term ambiguous, the Court applied "the rule of contra proferentum and construed the term[] strictly in favor of the insured." Op. at 15.   It found no evidence that the driver intended to have an accident and deemed the insured's death to be an accident.

 Read this article in its entirety on North Carolina Business Litigation Report, a blog for lawyers focusing on issues of North Carolina business law and the day-to-day practice of business litigation in North Carolina courts.