Courts Address Dangers of Distracted Driving in Disputes Over Accidental Death Coverage for Auto Accidents

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by | Oct 10, 2012 | Auto Accidents

The problem of distracted driving has gained considerable attention in recent years. Distracted driving can play a significant role in determining negligence in automobile accident cases, and state and local laws have begun to penalize activities like texting while driving. Few court cases, however, have directly addressed its legal implications. Certain court decisions involving accidental death benefits may provide a useful analogy for distracted driving cases. The decisions involve denials of benefits to survivors of people who died while driving under the influence of alcohol, but some courts have noted a similarity to situations where a driver was distracted by a cell phone or other electronic device.

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals considered a claim for accidental death benefits after a drunk driving accident in LaAsmar v. Phelps Dodge Corp., et al, 605 F.3d 789 (10th Cir. 2010). The parents of a man who died in a single-car accident filed suit after the insurance company denied coverage under their son’s accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) policy. The man died of blunt force trauma injuries after crashing his truck on a rural Colorado road in 2004. A toxicology report showed that his blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was almost three time the state’s legal limit. The insurance company cited several reasons for denying coverage, including a claim that the crash was not an “accident” within the meaning of the policy and a claim that his death fell under a policy exclusion for intentional injuries.

In Kovach v. Zurich American Ins. Co., 587 F.3d 323 (6th Cir. 2009), the Sixth Circuit addressed a similar situation, where an insurance company denied the AD&D claim of a man who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident while intoxicated. Both cases included arguments by the insurance companies that accidents resulting from drunk driving were reasonably foreseeable, and that they therefore did not constitute “accidents” under the policies.

The courts in both cases ruled that the insurance companies were obligated to pay claims under the AD&D policies. The LaAsmar court found that the policy did not provide a clear definition of “accident,” and it cited Kovach in drawing a comparison to crashes involving distracted driving. In Kovach, the court noted that activities such as cell phone use, music, or even “personal grooming” while driving could contribute to collisions, but that people injured in such accidents would reasonably expect to receive benefits under an AD&D policy. Kovach, 587 F.3d at 335. The court cited studies that showed that drivers were twenty-three times more likely to have an accident while texting, and that texting while driving reduced drivers’ reaction times three times more than driving at the legal blood alcohol limit. Id.

Auto accident attorney Doug Horn is an advocate for safe driving in the greater Kansas City area. He represents the rights of people who have suffered injuries or lost loved ones due to the negligent or illegal conduct of others. Contact us today online or at (816) 795-7500 to schedule a free and confidential consultation.