Illinois Court Rules against Motorcyclist Injured in ‘Wind Shear’ Case

The Chicago Attorneys of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. take note of a decision handed down by the Illinois Appellate Court earlier this month, involving a claim for uninsured motorist coverage extending from a 2009 motorcycle accident that injured two. The case, State Farm Mutual Auto Ins. Co., v. Benedetto, 2015 IL App (1st) 141521, arises from the trial court’s entry of a ruling in favor of the injured motorcyclist. State Farm, filed its timely appeal, contending that both insurance and contract law warrant reversal.

THE INCIDENT

A motorcyclist, along with his passenger, were traveling westbound along a Highway 150, near Chester Illinois. At the same time, a semi was traveling eastbound along this same two-lane highway. As the vehicles entered a curve in the road, the semi crossed into the opposite lane of travel. The victims contend that they swerved right in an attempt to avoid collision, but that the wind shear of the passing semi propelled them onto a gravel shoulder and then into a ditch, causing injuries to both as a result of being thrown from the motorcycle. The driver of the semi, whose identity remains unknown, failed to stop.

THE INITIAL (UNDERLYING) CLAIM

On September 6, 2009, the motorcyclist, who was insured by a policy issued by State Farm, filed a claim seeking to invoke the underinsured motorist coverage included within the insured’s policy. Thereafter, State Farm sought a declaratory judgement, claiming that uninsured motorist coverage was inapplicable as to the operator of the motorcycle given the circumstances of the incident. In particular, State Farm contended that the provisions included within the insured’s policy, as well as Illinois law required “physical contact” between the insured and an unidentified hit-and-run driver in order to invoke uninsured motorist coverage, and further, that wind shear did not constitute physical contact.

In response, the insured motorcyclist filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the language included in the policy provision pertaining to hit-and-run collisions was ambiguous on the issue of whether “physical contact” was required. The insured further contended that even where such contact is required, wind shear serves as a sufficient equivalent to invoke coverage. State farm cross-motioned, but the trial court ruled in favor of the insured, finding that wind shear, although indirect, constitutes physical contact, and therefore is sufficient to invoke coverage under Illinois law.

THE APPEAL

State Farm appealed, which brings us to the decision entered earlier this month. In its Opinion, the court first addressed the issues of ambiguity, both in provisions included within the policy, as well as those under Sec. 143a of Illinois Insurance Code. The court concluded that no such ambiguity existed given use of the word “hit” in the policy and statute; inclusion of the term and “strike” in the policy; the circumstances involved at the case at hand; and interpretations provided in similar cases.

The Court went on to further address whether physical contact could occur indirectly. In comparing other cases, the appellate court stated that:

“The trial court’s conclusion that wind shear constitutes indirect physical contact is, at best, an etymological and jurisprudential leap in logic. Defendant alleged that after he swerved to avoid a direct collision with the semi, his motorcycle was struck by the involved wind shear, forcing him off the road and into a ditch. Bluntly put, any “contact” with air generated by a passing vehicle does not equate to indirect physical contact like a lug nut flying off a hit-and-run vehicle. The suggested wind shear is actually entirely consistent with the line of cases where the insured was denied coverage when he swerved his vehicle and avoided any physical contact with the hit-and-run vehicle.” [Citations omitted].

Following its analysis, the appellate court reversed and remanded the matter, with instruction for trial court to enter summary judgement in favor of State Farm.

THE IMPACT OF THIS RULING

At this point, this ruling does not appear to have established a brightline rule regarding the issue of ‘physical contact’ in hit-and-run crashes. Rather, it simply concludes that wind shear does not constitute physical contact in this particular case, given the circumstances involved, as well as interpretation of policy terms and Illinois law. Consequently, while this case may provide some guidance and clarification in similarly situated matters in the future, determining this would require the same analysis of the facts at hand, in light of applicable contractual and statutory provisions.

Compare an Illinois appellate ruling entered just ten days earlier, in the case of Cincinnati Ins. Co. v. Pritchett, 2015 IL App (3d) 130809, in which the court found that the terms of the auto policy were in fact ambiguous, where a separate provision in the policy stated that “[i]f there is no physical contact with the hit-and-run vehicle, the facts of the ‘accident’ must be proved.” Although this case involved an accident allegedly caused by a third vehicle that left the scene, as opposed to wind shear, the primary issue on appeal was whether physical contact was required. This ruling suggests that the Benedetto court could have reached a different conclusion, had the auto policy involved been similar to the one in the Pritchett case.

If you or a loved one were involved in an accident, it is important to discuss the matter with an experienced lawyer that can evaluate the facts, assess policy coverage, and explain your rights and options under Illinois law. Contact the Chicago Auto Collision of Zneimer & Zneimer P.C. by calling 773-516-4100, or send us a message online.