The Kentucky Court of Appeals considered an interesting issue of insurance law in a reported decision earlier this year. In Stamper v. Hyden, 334 S.W.3d 120 (Ky. App. 2011), a case arising in Kenton County, the Court held that an insured driver was entitled to make a claim for uninsured motorist (“UM”) benefits for injuries suffered when the driver’s ex-boyfriend intentionally rammed his car into hers. The insurance carrier had denied UM coverage, arguing that the injuries were not the result of an “accident” because the uninsured tortfeasor intentionally caused the collision. The injured person sued both the uninsured tortfeasor for damages and her own carrier for UM benefits. The appellate opinion states that the trial court concluded that the UM policy did not provide coverage for a collision intentionally caused by the ex-boyfriend, that the trial court instructed the jury that the plaintiff was entitled to benefits from her carrier if they believed her injuries resulted from an accident, and that the jury awarded zero damages against either defendant (even though the trial court had previously entered summary judgment against the tortfeasor).
On appeal, the Court of Appeals focused on the issue whether an “accident” for insurance purposes covers an intentional act. The Court first drew on case law interpreting a life insurance policy providing double indemnity for accidental death, Fryman for Fryman v. Pilot Life Ins. Co., 704 S.W.2d 205 (Ky. 1986), in which the insured decedent was killed while operating a motorcycle recklessly and under the influence of alcohol. The trial court in Fryman found the death to be accidental such that the beneficiaries were entitled to double indemnity under his group life policy from his employer, but the Court of Appeals reversed, finding that death is not accidental when it is a “foreseeable result of a voluntary and unnecessary act or course of conduct of the insured.” The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that if death was not a result of plan, design or intent on the part of the decedent, it should be considered accidental.
The Court in Stamper applied this rationale to UM coverage and found that a driver with UM coverage whose injuries were not the result of a plan, design or intent on the part of the insured, and thus were accidental from the standpoint of the insured, is entitled to UM benefits even though an uninsured driver intentionally caused the collision with the insured. The Court noted that a majority of jurisdictions that have decided the issue have held that the question whether a casualty resulted from an accident is to be determined from the point of view of the injured person, not that of another actor who caused injury.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and remanded for a new trial based on instructional error. The trial court had instructed the jury that the plaintiff was entitled to UM benefits “only to the extent that [her injuries] were caused by an accident.” The Court of Appeals followed the rule that instructional error is presumed to be prejudicial unless the appellee meets the burden of showing that no prejudice resulted. The Court stated that the erroneous instruction “potentially confused or misled the jury” such that a new trial was warranted. The Court rejected the carrier’s fallback argument that the award of zero damages even against the intentional tortfeasor indicated the jury concluded the plaintiff had not suffered compensable damages as a result of the collision, such that the error in the instructions could be deemed harmless.
Stamper v. Hyden was authored by Judge Donna Dixon and is final and published. Plaintiff’s counsel Nick Nighswander informed me the case was settled after remand.
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