The purpose of underinsured motorist coverage in New York state, as codified in New York Insurance Law, Article 52, is to close the gaps inherent in financial responsibility when an innocent person is killed or injured through the wrongful conduct of a driver who is either uninsured or the insurance doesn’t cover the extent of the plaintiff’s damages.
But it’s been the experience of our Queens injury attorneys that even in cases where an uninsured motorist claim is clearly warranted, the auto insurance companies will fight aggressively to avoid paying.
We saw this recently illustrated in the case of Rawls v. Progressive N. Ins. Co., as reviewed by the state supreme court in Connecticut. The legal back-and-forth stretched on years, but the plaintiff was ultimately successful.
The case started with a rear-end collision that occurred when the defendant driver reportedly ran a red traffic light in 2006. It was around 11:30 p.m., and the plaintiff had brought his vehicle to a complete stop at the light. Roughly 15 seconds later, the defendant’s vehicle slammed into him from behind. The force of the impact caused the plaintiff to collide with the vehicle in front of him. The plaintiff’s head struck the steering column and he was then thrown back into the seat before losing consciousness.
The plaintiff awoke several minutes later, dazed, head aching and covered in glass. At the time, the plaintiff was unable to report where the offending driver was looking when the crash occurred, didn’t know how fast he’d been traveling and had no idea whether the driver who struck him had applied his brakes or swerved just prior to impact. This is understandable, of course, given that he had just suffered a head injury.
The plaintiff said it was about five minutes before he was able to exit his vehicle. It was at that time he noted the back of his car was “destroyed.” The front too had sustained heavy damage.
The plaintiff was treated at a nearby hospital and subsequently released. He later filed a lawsuit against the offending driver for negligence and against Progressive Insurance Company for underinsured motorist benefits. It was the plaintiff’s position that the defendant was negligent becuase he had been following too closely, failed to keep a proper and reasonable lookout, failed to apply his brakes in a timely fashion in order to avoid a crash, failed to swerve in order to avoid a collision, did not keep the vehicle under proper and reasonable control, was distracted and speeding.
It would seem a fairly straightforward case. However, after the plaintiff completed closing arguments during the trial, Progressive moved for a directed verdict (similar to a summary judgment) on the grounds that the plaintiff hadn’t submitted any evidence from which a jury could “reasonably conclude” negligence on the part of the rear driver. Progressive asserted that the plaintiff had only argued there was a rear-end collision and he’d been stopped at a red light. To determine anything beyond that, Progressive argued, would be speculation or conjecture.
The trial court denied this motion. The insurance firm renewed it again at the end of trial, but the court again denied it. The jury found in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $51,000 in damages. That amount was later reduced to $31,000.
Progressive appealed, saying the trial court had abused its discretion in denying its earlier motion regarding the establishment of negligence. The appellate court sided with the insurance firm, reversing the earlier verdict and remanding the case back to the lower court. However, the plaintiff appealed on the grounds that evidence insufficiency can only be found when the circumstances surrounding a particular crash are entirely unknown. That wasn’t the case here. In addition to the plaintiff’s testimony, there were police reports, officer testimony, physical evidence and photographs presented.
On this basis, the supreme court found that there was enough evidence in the case for a jury to reasonably find or infer that it was more than probable that the rear-ending driver was negligent and further that his negligence caused the crash.
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Rawls v. Progressive N. Ins. Co., Jan. 4, 2014, Connecticut Supreme Court
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Queens Car Accident Injuries Caused by Distracted Parents, Dec. 20, 2013, Manhattan Car Accident Lawyer Blog