Uninsured Motorist Coverage and the Substantial Nexus Test

Submitted by New Jersey motor vehicle accident attorney, Jeffrey Hark

               Surin v. Allstate, decided February 27, 20145 is a case concerning uninsured motorist coverage. This is coverage the insurance company must pay if you are involved in a crash with a vehicle that is not insured or in a hit-and-run scenario. In this particular case the plaintiff was driving home from her night shift as a nurse when she struck a rim and tire in the middle of the road which caused her to lose control, drive off the road, and flip over. She was not issued any citations and not found to be intoxicated or impaired. It is undisputed that the vehicle debris in the road caused the accident and nothing else. In order for UM coverage to apply there must be a “substantial nexus” that reveals the accident and an uninsured vehicle–or a hit-and-run vehicle. The test for this consists of two parts:

  1. the insured must demonstrate that her injuries were caused by an accident
  2. the insured must prove that the accident arose from the ownership, maintenance, operation, or use of an uninsured vehicle.

The trial judge and appellate judge in this case both held that a jury could not rationally infer that the tire and rim in the roadway negligently detached from a vehicle and noted there was no expert opinion present to argue the contrary. The plaintiff’s attorney insisted that a tire in the middle of a roadway must have come from a vehicle and that a jury could reasonably infer this. He also emphasized that this question of fact was a decision for the jury to make not the judge. The concept of res ipsa loquitor–the thing speaks for itself–has been discussed in this blog before and was not mentioned in the opinion of this case. But it essentially related to situations similar to this one and came out of a famous British case in which a barrel of flour fell from a second-story onto a plaintiff’s head. The difference here of course is that we do not know where the tire came from the way it was known where the barrel came from.

The judge in this case applied the test for “substantial nexus” in a very literal fashion. It may be possible that a tire left on the side of the road was simply dumped there or fell off of a truck as cargo rather than being part of the vehicle itself. But it seems highly unlikely using common sense rather than narrow legal sense that a rim and tire would be on the side of the road for any reason other than falling off of a passing vehicle. Regardless it seem that the purpose of UM coverage is being undermined here by denying it to the plaintiff.

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