“Phantom Vehicle” Claim Fails for Lack of Evidence

by | July, 2023 | Legal News

Phantom vehicle claims are usually frustrating in that there is generally no way the carrier can dispute the phantom driver was uninsured, or whether a phantom driver was at fault for causing an accident.

Lauritsen v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., No. 4:22 CV 1073 JMB, 2023 WL 2891151, at *1 (E.D. Mo. Apr. 11, 2023)

Lauritsen presents the atypical result of a summary judgment being entered for the carrier due to the insured’s failure to produce evidence of fault of the phantom driver. The undisputed facts were set out in the opinion as follows:

After 10:30 p.m. on September 5, 2017, Plaintiff, Susan C. Lauritsen, was operating her Vespa scooter on Clayton Road in Forest Park near the entrance to a driveway leading down to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Mounted Patrol Stables. As she was heading west on Clayton Avenue, and going about 30 miles per hour, she observed headlights in the driveway to her left, travelling at a “pretty high rate of speed” towards her. At the time, she was even with the driveway and could see that the headlights were about 15 feet away. The vehicle did not strike her. While Plaintiff believed that the vehicle was “going awfully fast” towards her, she does not remember much after seeing the headlights. She does not know if the other vehicle actually entered Clayton Avenue or if she lost control of her Vespa or if she took any action to avoid a collision. She does not know if she applied her brakes or if she hit the curb. In sum, she testified that “[t]he only thing I remember is seeing it, and being frightened, and the next thing I know, I’m in the hospital.” There were no additional witnesses to the accident.

The Court set forth Missouri law in this context as requiring the insured to prove “(1) that the other motorist was uninsured, (2) that the other motorist is legally liable to the insured, and (3) the amount of damages….To establish negligence, Plaintiff must demonstrate that “(1) the [other driver] had a duty to the plaintiff; (2) the [other driver] failed to perform that duty; and (3) the [other driver’s] breach was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury.”  Drivers have a variety of duties vis-à-vis other drivers on the road – the two most important and common are to keep an adequate look out and avoid excessive speed.”

In entering judgment for State Farm, the court held that the only evidence that Plaintiff presents as to the actions of the other vehicle are that she perceived it was going fast and it was 15 feet from her at the intersection of the driveway and Clayton Avenue. There is no evidence that the other driver was violating any rules of the road, that she was driving too fast to stop at the intersection, that she failed to adequately observe the roadway and other vehicles, or that she failed to take precautionary measures to avoid a collision. Likewise, there is no evidence that Plaintiff took any action in response to the other vehicle, evasive or otherwise, or that the other vehicle was the proximate cause of her injuries. Plaintiff’s perception and fear do not translate into a finding that the other driver was negligent in the operation of her vehicle. Instead, Plaintiff merely speculates that the other driver approached an intersection too fast and she was required to take evasive action to avoid the collision. Speculation, however, is no substitute for evidence.

It’s important to note that the only evidence before the Court was a Police Report, which really didn’t factor into the Court’s decision, and a “sworn statement.”  This highlights how important the initial investigation can be in obtaining a true set of facts. Prepare for recorded statements and exercise the examination under oath clause if necessary.