Collision or other than collision: Which coverage applies?
By Christine Barlow
One of the most difficult questions when dealing with automobile policies is whether a loss is collision or other than collision. While the basic accidents are easy, there are many gray areas. Everyone knows that striking an animal is an "other than collision" loss, but what if the animal is already dead? Does that make a difference in which coverage applies? While rising water is normally considered an other than collision loss, if the insured drives into standing water, is the loss still other than collision? These and other situations make what at first glance seems to be an easy and straightforward coverage, very difficult and confusing.
The standard auto policy defines collision as upset or impact of the insured vehicle or a non-owned vehicle with another vehicle or object. There is no policy definition of object, and standard court practice is to go to a desk reference when a term is not defined. Merriam Webster Online defines object as "something material that may be perceived by the senses". So, an object is a thing; something tangible and touchable. Trees, fences, garbage cans are all objects.
Other than collision
Other than collision is not defined directly, but examples of causes of loss are given. Causes of loss that are considered other than collision are fires, missiles, falling objects, theft, explosion or earthquake, windstorm, hail, water or flood, vandalism, riot or civil commotion, birds or animals, or breakage of glass. In all of these situations, the cause is out of the control of the driver of the vehicle. The insured has no control over fire overtaking the vehicle, or a wind or hailstorm. However, it is presumed that the driver can avoid striking an object such as a fence or tree, and that avoiding such obstacles is part of the duty of being a safe driver.
Animals -- dead or alive
The standard auto policy directly states that contact with a bird or animal is an other than collision loss. This is easily understood when a deer runs out in front of a vehicle. The driver has no control over a wild animal, and often does not have time to react to avoid striking the animal. The lack of control over the animal is what makes striking the animal an other than collision loss.
However, if a vehicle strikes a deceased animal, the question as to whether that becomes a collision loss often arises. Theoretically, a deceased animal is the same as any other stationary object, such as a fence or tree. It is something the driver of the vehicle should see in advance and avoid; dead animals do not jump out of the bushes.
The policy makes no qualifications about the status of the bird or animal that makes the loss other than collision; it does not require the animal to be alive. Therefore, since there are no specifications as to the nature of the animal, and the policy states than loss caused by an animal is an other than collision loss, striking a dead animal is an other than collision loss. Ambiguities are always found in the favor of the insured.
Water -- standing or rising
Water is another cause of loss that can be confusing. It is clear that when a vehicle is parked and water due to storms, heavy rains, or floods rises around the vehicle and causes damage, this is an other than collision loss. If an insured directly drives into standing water, however, that is a different issue. While this sounds similar to the animal argument, courts have stated that water is an object, and driving into water constitutes a collision. In Morton v. Blue Ridge Insurance Co., 121 S.E.2d 716 (NC 1961), the Supreme Court of North Carolina held that damage was from a collision when a car rolled into a canal as its owner was launching his boat from a boat trailer. In Harris v. Allstate Insurance Company, 127 N.E.2d 816 (NY Ct. App. 1955), the insured lost control of his car while driving through a deep puddle during a heavy rain, the car swerving and going over a bank. New York's highest court held that this was a collision and not an other than collision loss.
Falling objects and missiles
Falling objects and missiles also generate a significant amount of confusion. First, what makes something a falling object instead of a missile? A falling object is propelled by gravity; it may have come loose from some object, but it falls onto the vehicle. For example, a garage roof that collapses is a falling object. Missiles, on the other hand, are projectiles and tend to be objects in flight through the air. A stone thrown from a vehicle on the road is a missile; it is flying through the air and then strikes, or collides, with the vehicle. Both missiles and falling objects are listed in the other than collision causes of loss. However, at times, a falling object or a missile can be a collision loss, depending on the nature of the situation. Courts are again key in this discussion, and decisions go both ways. In Pohl v. Commercial Insurance Co. of Newark, 232 N.Y.S.2d 92 (NY App. Ct. 1962) the court held that a truck wheel and tire that came off another vehicle and hurtled through the air about three feet off the ground was a falling object, and therefore covered under other than collision. Conversely, Boenzle v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 258 S.W.2d 938 (Mo. Ct. App. 1953), stated that dual wheels from a tractor-trailer that rolled into an insured automobile caused collision damage, and not other than collision damage.
This just scratches the surface of the collision versus other than collision discussion. There are many variables that can change the nature of the accident from one coverage to another. It is important to carefully work through the situation and what happened, and always remember that in cases of ambiguity, the insured gets the benefit of the doubt.
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