Washington Court Rules in Single-Car, Underinsured Motorist Case

By Timothy F. Kirn | August 22, 2011

A Washington State couple has been turned down on their appeal of a ruling that said Farmers Insurance can deny their uninsured motorist claim following a single-car accident, which they said was caused by another driver who disappeared.

The case involved an accident that Michael and his wife, Brenda, Osborne had on April 16, 2009. While driving on a lonely road in Skagit County, their Subaru went off the road. When the county sheriff arrived on the scene, they told him that they had been driven off the road by a car traveling in the opposite direction. The other car — referred to as the “phantom car” in the court decision — never stopped.

Five days later, the Osbornes, who had injuries, filed an underinsured motorist claim with their insurer, Farmers Insurance Co. of Washington.

Farmers’ denied their claim on the grounds that there was no corroborating evidence of another driver, and their policy clearly stated that, in cases where there was no physical crash between the insured’s car and the other car, the “facts of the accident must also be verified by someone other than you or another person having an underinsured motorist claim from the same accident.”

The sheriff said in his report that he passed no car in the area prior to arriving on the scene, and that there were no skid marks on the road to indicate the Osbornes, or another driver, had swerved hard to avoid a collision. He noted that it was possible that Brenda Osborne simply kept driving straight when the road turned. He also noted that they seemed oddly calm and composed.

The Osborne’s sued Farmers’ for denying their claim, for breach of contract.

In the ruling, the Court of Appeals Division One of Washington considered two questions: whether the trial court erred when it refused to consider their statements given at the scene and whether there was evidence of another car.

The trial court did not consider their statements at the scene because it was hearsay. The Osbornes’ attorney agreed it was hearsay but argued that there was an exception for “excited” speech given at the scene of a startling event.

The Court of Appeals rejected that contention, saying the sheriff on the scene had noted that they seemed very calm.

Regarding the second issue, the Court said there was no reasonable evidence of a second car, and so therefore there were no grounds for a legal suit.

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