Case Summary: No Contact, No Coverage – North Carolina Law

Uninsured Motorist (UM) Coverage – No Contact, No Coverage

Andersen v. Baccus
335 N.C. 526 733 (1994)
Supreme Court of North Carolina

Background

This case arose out of an accident in which a vehicle, driven by Defendant Marilyn Combs Baccus (Baccus) struck an automobile driven by Saundra L. Andersen, the wife of Plaintiff James J. Andersen (Andersen). The wreck occurred when defendant Baccus swerved to avoid a collision with a third automobile, which was being operated by an unknown person. As a result of the accident, Saundra Andersen, gave birth to a still born son, and later died from her injures.

Procedural History

At the Superior Court in Pasquotank County, summary judgment was granted in favor of plaintiff Andersen, as administrator of his wife’s estate, and held that the administrator was entitled to uninsured motorist coverage for damages. State Farm Automobile Insurance Company (State Farm) appealed that judgment to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and held that State Farm was not liable to Andersen through the provision of uninsured or underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage. The Court found that the policy, as issued by Defendant State Farm, required that the unidentified vehicle actually make contact with the insured’s person or with the insured’s vehicle. Multiple parties sought discretionary review from the North Carolina Supreme Court, and it was granted pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7A-31.

Facts

The facts at the trial tended to show that the fatal accident occurred when defendant Baccus’s vehicle, in swerving to avoid a third vehicle, collided with Saundra Andersen’s vehicle. Plaintiff John Andersen arrived at the scene to see his wife Saundra being cut from the wreckage. The next day at the hospital, Saundra gave birth to a stillborn son, and a short time later, died as a result of her injuries.

Plaintiff Andersen, brought multiple claims forth, including for wrongful death of his wife and son, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and also sought punitive damages on those claims. His deceased wife had a policy of insurance with State Farm which provided uninsured motorist (UM) coverage. The relevant portion of State Farm’s insurance policy stated:

“’Uninsured motor vehicle’ means a land motor vehicle or trailer of any type:

Which, with respect to damages for bodily injury only, is a hit and run vehicle whose operator or owner cannot be identified and which hits:

  • you or any family member;
  • a vehicle which you or any family member are occupying; or
  • your covered auto.”

Governing Law

North Carolina’s uninsured motorist statute, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-279.21 requires insurance companies to provide coverage to those insured:

“Who are legally entitled to recover damages from owners or operators of uninsured motor vehicles and hit and run motor vehicles…where the insured…has sustained bodily injury as the result of a collision between motor vehicles and asserts that the identity of the operator or owner of a vehicle (other than a vehicle in which the insured is a passenger) cannot be ascertained, the insured may institute an action directly against the insurer…”

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-279.21 (1993). The Courts liberally construe such provisions to provide financial compensation to innocent persons who are injured due to the negligence of uninsured or unidentified drivers who leave the scene of an accident.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court of North Carolina ultimately upheld the Court of Appeals ruling in denying coverage for a “phantom vehicle.” They reasoned that the legislature had been specific and required physical contact for there to be coverage, because of the amount of fraudulent claims that would likely result if that provision were not upheld.

Key Takeaways

This case is illustrative of the phantom vehicle issue, in which a car that flees the accident scene is the actual cause of a collision between two other vehicles or causes a single-vehicle accident. If there is no actual physical impact on the part of the phantom vehicle, then uninsured motorist coverage does not compensate for damages.


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