By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist
Ethel Adams was driving along minding her own business last March when a pickup truck was forced into her lane, slamming into her head-on.
She had to be cut from her crumpled Hyundai Accent. She was in a coma for nine days. Doctors first debated whether she'd live, then, later, whether she'd walk. It would seem Adams was the unlucky victim of an unforeseen event — what most anyone would call an "accident."
Not her insurance company.
Though Adams, 60, has $2 million worth of coverage, a subsidiary of Farmers Insurance has decided not to pay her a penny because they say someone caused Adams' crash on purpose.
And state case law suggests they might be able to get away with it.
"I'm in shock; it's unbelievable to me that a huge insurance company can just declare that I wasn't in an accident," said Adams, sitting in a wheelchair in her Everett apartment.
Nobody disputes the gist of what happened to Adams last March. She was driving south at 193rd and Aurora Avenue North, delivering dentures and crowns for her job at Edgewood Dental Laboratory.
A crazed man named Michael R. Testa was driving north attempting to run his girlfriend off the road. In an infamous road-rage crash that has been shown countless times on TV, he bashed her pickup truck across the centerline and into the southbound lanes.
Four other cars crashed. The pickup truck slammed directly into Ethel Adams, squashing her car and knocking it backward into another truck.
No one died. Adams, with collapsed lungs and 17 broken bones, was the most seriously hurt. She spent a month in the hospital and another five in a nursing home.
Earlier this week, Testa pleaded guilty to two crimes — domestic-violence assault for hitting his girlfriend, and vehicular assault for causing the pileup. Testa, 40, will be sentenced Nov. 10 and is expected to get up to 12 years.
And that's where it gets maddening for Ethel Adams. She doesn't know Testa or his girlfriend. From her vantage, a truck driven by a stranger came hurtling out of nowhere and ruined her life.
She says if anyone ever deserved the label "innocent victim," she is it.
But a Farmers' affiliate, Truck Insurance Exchange, argues that Adams' state of mind is irrelevant. Even though it was Adams' insurance policy, the uninsured-motorist portion is designed to cover Testa's liability. Therefore it's Testa's state of mind that matters, and Testa meant to cause the wreck, so it's not an accident.
Explains a letter from Farmers' Seattle-based attorney, Ronald Dinning: "The common meaning of 'accident' does not depend on the perspective of the injured insured, but instead essentially depends on the intent of the person causing the injury or damage."
He cited a 1990 Pierce County case in which a woman purposely crashed into a car driven by her ex-husband. The state Supreme Court ruled then that insurance didn't have to cover the ex-husband's injuries in part because the outcome wasn't "unexpected or unforeseen" — that is, it wasn't an accident.
"It's also not unexpected or unforeseen that if you are ramming a car from behind with the intent of pushing it into oncoming traffic, you're going to hit some people," Dinning said in an interview. "That's what Testa did. Liability insurance is only for accidents, and this wasn't an accident."
The logic here is impressively tortured, even for an industry known for exploiting technical loopholes.
To argue that Testa, who went on a rampage and then was sent to a psychiatric hospital for delusions, could have possibly intended to crash a car into Adams, a woman he didn't know existed, is truly an outrage.
"That sounds like more of a crime than what happened to me [in the wreck]," Adams said.
Police interviewed Testa twice the day of the crash. His statements were wildly erratic. Testa initially told police his girlfriend's Ford truck rammed his truck from behind. Later he confessed he "hit her in the ass end of the Ford and flipped it." But he never says his goal was to push her truck into oncoming lanes. He never mentions other cars at all.
Dinning said what happened to Adams is "very unfortunate," but "the law is the law unless the Legislature wants to change it."
That's exactly what lawmakers ought to do. They did something similar in 1998 when they banned insurance companies from punishing the victim in cases of domestic violence. That came after Safeco Insurance said it wouldn't cover the expenses of a Kent woman when her estranged husband burned down her house.
Of course a new law would be too late to help Ethel Adams. She was an innocent bystander to the crime but is suffering most of the pain. And she's the one left to twist in the wind.
(The state of Washington has paid her medical bills so far through workers' compensation — more than $500,000, according to her attorney, Karen Koehler. But the state is covering only a portion of her lost salary and other expenses.)
What ought to happen next is Farmers should miraculously discover some inner decency — or maybe just some shame — and pay Adams her due. That's what Safeco did in 1998, eventually paying to rebuild that torched house even though it wasn't required to.
Then Adams could at least rent a wheelchair-accessible home to replace her cramped apartment, says her daughter, Vicki Adams, 34.
An apology for this fiasco also wouldn't hurt.
More likely, the companies will have to be sued. Koehler says a suit could be filed as early as today.
Ethel Adams, who can barely reach her kitchen using a walker, is dumbfounded someone could claim she wasn't in a car accident. But mostly she feels betrayed.
"The insurance companies say they're here to protect people. But then when you need them most, they do something like this."
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.