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From the Desk of Cliff J. Wilson: The Oregon Supreme Court got two bites of the apple in the case of Wright v. Turner. In a second appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court on the saga of Wright 1, Wright II,and Wright III, the Court addressed whether the underlying liability of the negligent drivers determines the limits of the Plaintiff’s underinsured motorist coverage. The Court also examined whether a jury can be permitted to conclude that it could not apportion the Plaintiff’s damages between two accidents and whether the jury could decide, as a matter of fact, that the Plaintiff’s injuries were caused by the concurrence of two accidents.
In this case, the Oregon Supreme Court ultimately decided that (1) the underlying liability of the negligent drivers did not determine the limits of Plaintiff’s UIM coverage; (2) the jury could properly conclude that it could not apportion damages between two accidents; and (3) the jury was permitted, but not required, to find that both accidents caused Plaintiff’s injuries under settled principles of causation.
Wright v. Turner, 368 Or. 207 (2021)
Wright v. Turner (Wright III)is the second appeal of the case to make it in front of the Oregon Supreme Court relating to an uninsured motorist claim resulting from a 2004 multi-car automobile accident. On the date of the accident, Martha Wright (Plaintiff) was the passenger of a vehicle struck by John Turner’s (Turner) car. After that collision, the vehicle Plaintiff was in came to a stop on the highway’s median strip, resting against a concrete barrier. As Plaintiff reached for her phone to call 9-1-1, another car, driven by Sherri Oliver (Oliver), struck the back of Plaintiff’s vehicle.
Turner and Oliver both admitted liability and settled their claims for policy limits. In the first Wright case (Wright I), Plaintiff pursued a lawsuit against her underinsured motorist carrier, Mutual of Enumclaw Insurance (MOE). MOE conceded that both Turner and Oliver had been negligent, and the only issue before the jury was the amount of damages Plaintiff incurred. In 2009 a jury awarded Plaintiff $979,540 in damages, less $175,000 that was paid to Plaintiff by Turner and Oliver. Plaintiff’s policy with MOE had a per accident policy limit of $500,000. MOE argued that only one accident occurred in this incident, and as a result, the policy only required MOE to make a single payment of its policy limits to fully satisfy the judgment. The trial court disregarded MOE’s argument that only one accident occurred and entered judgment for Plaintiff for the total amount of the damages awarded by the jury, less offsets. MOE appealed. The Oregon Court of Appeals examined the policy language and reversed the trial court. Plaintiff appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court. The Oregon Supreme Court concluded that the number of accidents was a question for the jury to decide and reversed the Oregon Court of Appeals.
On remand, the trial court allowed the jury to determine whether there were two separate accidents. Additionally, the trial court asked the jury to decide if an apportionment of Plaintiff’s damages between the two accidents was possible. The jury found that there were two accidents and that apportionment of Plaintiff’s damages between the two was impossible. MOE appealed, and the Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the trial court. Plaintiff appealed that decision and the case found its way to the Oregon Supreme Court again.
The concept of a tortfeasor’s legal liability is distinct from the question of whether one or two accidents occurred. Oregon uninsured and underinsured motorist statutes anticipate that UIM and UM coverage and benefits are subject to policy limits. Former ORS 742.502(2)(a) governed policy limits and provided that a “motor vehicle bodily injury liability policy shall have the same limits for uninsured motorist coverage as for bodily injury liability coverage unless a named insured in the writing elects lower coverage.” Determining that coverage has been triggered and the benefits it provides is a different determination than whether an insured’s policy places limits on the recovery of those benefits and what those limits are. The terms of a policy include limits on the insurer’s liability; the terms of the coverage do not.
Under Oregon comparative fault statutes, when a trier of fact determines that multiple defendants are negligent and that the conduct of each was a “cause-in-fact” of the plaintiff’s harm, the trier of fact is then required to determine the relative fault of the defendants and to apportion the plaintiff’s damages between them on that basis. Comparative fault is different than comparative causation. Oregon’s comparative fault statute does not “call for apportioning damages by quantifying the contribution of several causes that had to coincide to produce the injury.” Oregon law recognizes instances in which “two causes concur to bring about an event.” The negligence of two tortfeasors could be the cause of indivisible harm to the plaintiff.
When determining whether the trial court erred in giving a particular jury instruction, the Appellate Courts do not view that instruction in isolation. The court “read[s] the instructions as a whole to determine whether they stated the law accurately.” When insurance policies base their policy language on statutes, the court interprets the legislative intent behind the statute instead of the intent of the parties to the policy. Here, the language in Plaintiff’s UIM policy with MOE mirrored the language in ORS 742.504(7)(a). Therefore, to determine the UIM policy limits, the court “attempts to determine the legislature’s intention in enacting that statute rather than the parties’ contractual intentions in entering into an insurance contract.”
The Oregon Supreme Court examined three issues in this case: (1) whether the underlying liability of the drivers determines the limits of Plaintiff’s UIM benefits; (2) whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury that it could find that the damages could not be apportioned between the collision with Turner and the collision with Oliver; and (3) whether the jury was permitted, to find that both accidents caused Plaintiff’s injuries without apportioning damages between them.
As to the first issue, the court stated that determining whether coverage has been triggered and the benefits it provides are different determinations than the determination of whether an insured’s policy limits recovery of those benefits and what those limits are. The court held that Plaintiff’s recovery was limited to $500,000 for damages “resulting from any one automobile accident.” The fact that both Turner and Oliver were liable for Plaintiff’s injuries did not decide whether her damages resulted from one or two accidents. The court ultimately concluded that the liability of Turner and Oliver established that they acted negligently and that their negligent conduct caused Plaintiff’s injuries, but that did not necessarily prove that all of Plaintiff’s damages resulted from more than one of the accidents that occurred. It is factually possible that the accident involving Turner caused different injuries than Oliver’s accident caused. Therefore, the underlying liability of the drivers did not determine Plaintiff’s UIM limits.
Next, the court considered whether the trial court erred in permitting the jury to determine whether two separate accidents occurred and whether it was impossible for the jury to apportion Plaintiff’s damages between the two accidents. According to the court, had the issue been the tortfeasors’ liability, Oregon’s comparative fault statutes would apply, and Plaintiff’s damages would be apportioned according to the parties’ fault. MOE argued that the trial court should have told the jury that it was required to apportion damages if it found that there were two accidents and that the court erred by allowing the jury to find that it was impossible to apportion damages. Apportioning damages, according to MOE, would limit Plaintiff’s UIM benefits according to fault. The court looked at the legislative intent behind the phrase “resulting from any one accident” in ORS 742.504(7)(a) on which Plaintiff’s UIM policy language with MOE was based. The court determined that the legislature intended to limit the recovery of damages that are “caused” by any one accident. The court held that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury using causation concepts because Oregon law recognizes that there are instances in which two causes concur to bring about an event so that the injuries from the two events are indivisible. The court concluded that the trial court correctly instructed the jury that it could find, as a matter of fact, the number of accidents that had occurred and whether the cause of Plaintiff’s injuries could be separated between them.
THE BIG PICTURE
The decision of the Oregon Supreme Court specifically delineated the difference between causation and fault for the purpose of the determination of UM/UIM policy limits and tortfeasor liability. When tortfeasor liability is admitted, that does not necessarily mean that causation is also proven, but that those issues are factual determinations properly decided by the jury.