Is a passenger in an insured's motor vehicle an "independent witness" who can corroborate the insured's evidence concerning the involvement of an unidentified motorist for the purposes of the OPCF 44R Family Protection Endorsement? Is the passenger an "independent witness" if the passenger has also sued the insurer under the unidentified coverage provisions and therefore has an interest in the outcome?
D.A. Wilson J. recently said yes to these questions in Pepe v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.,  O.J. No. 2138 (S.C.J.).
Sections 1.5(c) and 1.5(d)(i) of the OPCF 44R, known as the Family Protection Endorsement, read as follows:
(c) where an eligible claimant alleges that both the owner and driver of an automobile referred to in clause 1.5(b) cannot be determined, the eligible claimant's own evidence of the involvement of such automobile must be corroborated by other material evidence; and
(d) "other material evidence" for the purposes of this section means (i) independent witness evidence, other than evidence of a spouse ... or a dependent relative ...; or (ii) physical evidence indicating the involvement of an unidentified automobile..
Wilson J. found that: "It is clear that the intention of this section is to limit the ability of individuals to make claims against their OPCF 44R policies for claims involving unidentified vehicles unless there is independent evidence to corroborate the involvement of a vehicle whose driver or owner cannot be ascertained. Further, the individual who corroborates the evidence of the claimant cannot be the spouse or a dependant of the claimant." (para. 10)
In the instance before Wilson J., the independent witness was a passenger in the plaintiff's vehicle and a girlfriend at the time of the accident but not at the time of the motion. Wilson J. concluded that this witness did not fit into the narrow class of persons excluded, namely a spouse or relative, and therefore she was an independent witness who could provide corroborating evidence.
It would seem that allowing a passenger, who has also sued the insurer under the unidentified coverage provisions and therefore has an interest in the outcome, to be the witness required under the Endorsement, defeats the intent of having "independent" corroborating evidence. On the other hand, it seems a correct finding on a plain and narrowly construed interpretation of the Endorsement's wording.