Danny Westneat wrote a crackerjack column, here, about a woman in a car accident who was refused coverage by her carrier, Farmers Insurance. Here is the story: The accident was caused by a man trying to run his girlfriend off the road. He ran her vehicle into the opposing lanes of Aurora Ave. North, whereupon she collided with the woman in the car, who was severely injured and in a coma for several days.
Farmers insured the woman in the car for accidents. Farmers’ lawyer wrote that what had happened was not an accident, because it had begun with an intentional act—the man trying to run his girlfriend off the road. Because it was not an accident, the injured woman’s policy didn’t cover it.
Westneat writes in his second column, here, that some 400 people wrote emails to him, pretty much all of them outraged at Farmers, and some Farmers customers said they would cancel their coverage. I say: Good for them.
He also writes that Farmers, apparently shocked by the publicity, may cover the woman after all. Good.
I am not a lawyer, and I have not read the insurance policy involved here. The lawyer’s definition of “accident” may be the one the company uses. If so, it is deceptive and misleading—and we may believe it to be intentionally deceptive and misleading, because everything in these contracts is intentional.
What is an “accident”? I look in my dictionary, Webster’s New Collegiate, and the definition that applies here is this:
“An unexpected happening causing loss or injury which is not due to any fault or misconduct on the part of the person injured but from the consequences of which he may be entitled to some legal relief.”
Crucially, what is an “accident” depends on your point of view. In this series of collisions, the damage to the malignant jerk of a boyfriend was not accidental. He caused it by an act of will. From the viewpoint of his girlfriend, her injuries were not accidental either, because Malignant Jerk intentionally caused them. In legal terms, they were a “tort,” not an accident. But Farmers doesn’t insure them. Farmers has no duty to them and is not concerned with them. Farmers insures the woman driving in the opposing lanes. She has paid Farmers to protect her, and she is relying on them to do so. She has not exhibited any “fault or misconduct.” She is not having a chase on a public street, and is minding her own business. She has done nothing to cause a collision, has no reason to anticipate it and, presumably, no way to avoid it. To her, what happened is clearly and obviously an accident. She is relying on Farmers for coverage in an accident, and the company defaults on its obligation. It lets her down.
Westneat’s first column had a headline asking for Farmers to “have a heart.” I wince at headlines like that, because insurance companies are not charities. You could ask the girlfriend's insurer (if any) to “have a heart,” too. I don’t expect or want insurance companies to have a heart. I ask them, instead, to have a brain. This woman is their customer. The public can see that she has done nothing tricky or deceptive, and has no questionable intent, and that Farmers Insurance has let her down. They can ask themselves whether they want to be insured by Farmers or, perhaps, by someone else.
A final question: Suppose the woman we’re writing about had an accidental-death policy, and that as a result of these collisions, she had died. Would Farmers now be denying the death benefit by arguing that her death was “not an accident?”
Respond to Bruce.