Florida motor vehicle insurance policies offer a variety of coverages. PIP and Property Damage — Liability are mandatory coverages. Others, like bodily injury and uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) are not.
An uninsured vehicle is one that does not maintain bodily injury coverage or, like a hit-and-run phantom vehicle, cannot be identified.
Interestingly, UM coverage may be available for injuries caused by road debris from an unknown source. However, the cases hold that the inference the debris came from another vehicle must be inescapable, or at least “outweigh all contrary inferences to such extent as to amount to a preponderance of all of the reasonable inferences that might be drawn from the same circumstances.” Voelker v. Combined Insurance Co. of America, 73 So.2d 403, 405 (Fla. 1954), citing King v. Weis-Patterson Lumber Co., 124 Fla. 272, 168 So. 858 (1936). See also Little v. Publix Supermarkets, Inc., 234 So.2d 132 (Fla. 4th DCA 1970).
In Allstate Insurance Company v. Bandiera, 512 So.2d 1082 (Fla. 4th DCA 1987), the appellate court denied coverage to a passenger injured by a cinder block from an unknown source. It felt that it was just as plausible that the cinder block was thrown at the car by pedestrians standing at the side of the road.
In State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company v. Hanania, 261 So.3d 684 (Fla. 1st DCA 2018), the court reached a different result by conluding that the inference a ladder fell from a motor vehicle was established to the exclusion of all other reasonable inferences. It pointed out that the bridge on which the accident happened was not a pedestrian bridge, that there were no overpasses over the bridge, and that the ladder was located at least a mile along the bridge.
The Hanania court felt that its inference was even stronger than the inference in Denoia v. Hartford Fire Insurance Co., 843 So.2d 285 (Fla. 3d DCA 2003), in which “the Third District held that the plaintiff could seek uninsured motorist benefits for injuries he sustained when his vehicle was struck by a twelve to fifteen-foot steel beam lying in the highway where the only plausible explanation for its being on the roadway was that it had been improperly secured on a truck and had fallen from the truck onto the roadway.” Hanania at 687.
In Denoia, “the car in front of the plaintiff ran over a steel beam which was lying in the roadway. This propelled the beam up into the air, and it struck the plaintiff’s front bumper.” Id. at 286. The court decided that the only plausible explanation for the steel beam being on the roadway was that it had been improperly secured on a truck and had fallen from the truck onto the roadway. It noted that there was no adjacent construction site and no other explanation for the presence of the beam on the roadway.
To recover in these cases, the plaintiff must carry the burden of proof on two inferences. The threshold inference is the one discussed above, namely: that the debris came from a motor vehicle. The second inference is that the debris ended up in the road due to the motor vehicle operator’s failure to act reasonably. See Hanania at 687. This is stacking inferences.
Here’s the rule on stacking inferences:
To prove a prima facie case of negligence…, circumstantial evidence can be used “as effectively and as conclusively” as direct positive evidence, but if a party “depends upon the inferences to be drawn from circumstantial evidence as proof of one fact, it cannot construct a further inference upon the initial inference in order to establish a further fact unless it can be found that the original, basic inference was established to the exclusion of all other reasonable inferences.”
Davie Plaza, LLC v. Iordanoglu, 232 So.3d 441, 445 (Fla. 4th DCA 2017) (quoting Nielsen v. City of Sarasota, 117 So.2d 731, 733 (Fla. 1960)). “The purpose of this rule against stacking inferences is `to protect litigants from verdicts based on conjecture and speculation.'” Broward Exec. Builders, 192 So.3d at 537 (quoting Stanley v. Marceaux, 991 So.2d 938, 940 (Fla. 4th DCA 2008)). “In a negligence action, if a plaintiff relies upon circumstantial evidence to establish a fact, fails to do so to the `exclusion of all other reasonable inferences,’ but then stacks further inferences upon it to establish causation, a directed verdict in favor of the defendant is warranted.” Id.
One more thing: Notify the police and the uninsured motorist carrier of the incident immediately, preferably within 24 hours.
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