Langan. Kind of important.

State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v Langan2011 NY Slip Op 02437 (Ct. App. 2011)

This appeal turns on whether decedent's injuries were caused by an accident [*4]within the meaning of the policy. Although the endorsements at issue do not define the term "accident," we have previously held that it is not to be "given a narrow, technical definition," but should be interpreted according to how it would be understood by the average person (Miller v Continental Ins. Co., 40 NY2d 675, 676 [1976]). We have determined that, for purposes of automobile insurance policies, the term "accident" means an event typically involving violence or the application of external force (see Michaels v City of Buffalo, 85 NY2d 754, 758 [1995]). In order to determine whether a particular event was "accidental, 'it is customary to look at the casualty from the point of view of the insured, to see whether or not . . . it was unexpected, unusual and unforeseen'" (Miller, 40 NY2d at 677 [citation omitted]). Although we have noted that the perspective of the injured victim should not be used to determine whether an accident has occurred, "'[b]ecause an injury is always fortuitous to a non-consenting victim'" 
(Michaels, 85 NY2d at 759 [citation omitted]), here we have the situation where the victim is also the insured.

It is clear that, viewed from the insured's perspective, the occurrence was an unexpected or unintended event — and therefore an "accident" — even though Popadich admittedly intended to strike decedent with the vehicle. The language of the policy also suggests that this type of situation would be covered as it was an accident caused by the use of a motor vehicle that did not have an applicable insurance policy. Significantly, Insurance Department regulations require that an automobile owner's liability insurance policy contain a provision specifying "that assault and battery shall be deemed an accident unless committed by or at the direction of the insured" (11 NYCRR § 60-1.1 [f]). Although the provisions at issue here do not involve liability coverage, the regulation is relevant to the understanding of the extent of coverage provided by the endorsements.

The argument against requiring coverage, advanced by State Farm and relied upon by the Appellate Division, is based on the general principle that mandatory uninsured motorist benefits are meant to provide coverage that is coextensive with, and not greater than, that afforded by a standard liability policy. They rely on our statement that the purpose of mandatory UM benefits is "'to provide the insured with the same level of protection he or she would provide to others were the insured a tortfeasor in a bodily injury accident'" (Raffellini v State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 9 NY3d 196, 204 [2007], quoting Matter of Prudential Prop. & Cas. Co. v Szeli, 83 NY2d 681, 687 [1994]).

In support of its position, State Farm relies on McCarthy v Motor Veh. Acc. Indem. Corp. (16 AD2d 35 [4th Dept 1962], affd 12 NY2d 922 [1963]), a case where the plaintiff-victim was injured when the insured motorist committed an intentional assault against her using his vehicle. After the insurer denied coverage because the occurrence was not an [*5]accident within the meaning of the policy, plaintiff sought to recover under the policy's MVAIC endorsement — a statutorily required endorsement intended to afford coverage to a person injured by an uninsured or unidentified motorist, equal to that available to one injured by a motorist covered by an applicable liability policy (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 38). MVAIC is funded by assessments levied against all of the insurance companies licensed to conduct business in the state (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 39). McCarthy held that since an intentional assault committed by an insured motorist was not an accident subject to coverage under the standard liability policy, such an occurrence would likewise be excluded from coverage under the MVAIC endorsement (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 43). The Court also determined that allowing recovery under MVAIC would be inconsistent with the purpose for which the special fund had been established (see McCarthy, 16 AD2d at 44).

This case differs from McCarthy in two important respects. First, UM coverage, although required by statute, is part of the insured's own policy — a policy that the insured selected and for which he pays premiums. Benefits received through coverage under the UM endorsement do not come out of a State fund. Second, the insured is the victim in this case, not the tortfeasor, and the public policy against providing coverage for an insured's criminal acts is not implicated.

We hold that, consistent with the reasonable expectation of the insured under the policy and the stated purpose of the UM endorsement (to provide coverage against damage caused by uninsured motorists), the intentional assault of an innocent insured is an accident within the meaning of his or her own policy. The occurrence at issue was clearly an accident from the insured's point of view and Langan is entitled to benefits under the UM endorsement.

This result is also in keeping with the national trend toward allowing innocent insureds to recover uninsured motorist benefits under their own policies when they have been injured through the intentional conduct of another (see e.g. American Family Mut. Ins. Co. v Petersen, 679 NW2d 571 [Iowa 2004]; Shaw v City of Jersey City, 174 NJ 567, 811 A2d 404 [2002]; Wendell v State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 293 Mont 140, 974 P2d 623 [1999]). Although the above decisions are not binding on this Court, we are persuaded that the view that has been adopted by these jurisdictions is the better one.

For many of the same reasons, Langan is entitled to coverage under the PIP endorsement and Coverage S. The average insured's understanding of the term "accident" is unlikely to vary from endorsement to endorsement within the same policy. The occurrence, from the insured's perspective, was certainly unexpected and unforeseen and should be considered an accident subject to coverage. Contrary to State Farm's argument, we perceive no danger that this result will frustrate efforts to fight fraud in the no-fault insurance system. Significantly, there is [*6]no allegation whatsoever of fraud in this case and it is patent that benefits should continue to be denied to those who intentionally cause their own injuries.

The argument that Langan is entitled to attorneys' fees was not addressed by the courts below and should be remitted to Supreme Court for its determination in the first instance.

Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be modified, without costs, by granting defendant judgment declaring in accordance with this opinion and remitting to Supreme Court for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion, and, as so modified, affirmed. The certified question should be answered in the negative. 

There is a dissent from Smith.

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