PROTECTING YOUR LEGAL RIGHTS WHEN YOU ARE IN AN ACCIDENT:
MAKING A CLAIM FOR YOUR INJURY:
I. WHAT IS INVOLVED?
II. WHAT CREATES LIABILITY?
III. WHAT ARE DAMAGES?
IV. WHAT IF MULTIPLE PARTIES JOINTLY CAUSE THE ACCIDENT?
V. WHAT STEPS ARE INVOLVED IN BRINGING A CLAIM?
VI. LITIGATION: WILL MY CLAIM RESULT IN A LAWSUIT?
VII. WHAT ARE THE PROCEDURES INVOLVED DURING LITIGATION?
VIII. HOW MUCH WILL IT COST ME TO BRING A CLAIM?
IX. WHAT ARE LIENS AND HOW ARE THEY HANDLED?
X. SHOULD I RETAIN AN ATTORNEY?
UNINSURED MOTORIST COVERAGE:
I. WHAT IS UNINSURED MOTORIST COVERAGE?
II. WHO IS INSURED BY MY UNINSURED MOTORIST POLICY?
III. WHEN DOES AN UNINSURED MOTORIST POLICY APPLY?
IV. WHAT LOSSES ARE COVERED?
V. HOW MUCH UNINSURED MOTORIST COVERAGE MUST MY INSURANCE COMPANY OFFER ME?
VI. HOW MUCH UNINSURED MOTORIST COVERAGE DO I NEED?
AFTER THE ACCIDENT:
What should you do?
What should you avoid doing?
If you’re injured and someone else is responsible, what steps should you take to protect your rights?
In my thirty years of practicing law, I have learned that you almost always will face problems dealing with the other side, or their insurance company in asserting a personal injury claim. In an ideal world, you would accumulate your economic damage information, determine the value of your non-economic (pain and suffering) loss, make a claim for the total amount against the other party’s insurance company, and settle the case promptly. In real life, it is never that simple.
In real life, you are certain to face one or more of the following obstacles and problems from the person or persons responsible for causing your injuries, and from their insurance company and lawyers:
- The person or persons responsible for causing your injuries are uninsured, inadequately insured, and don’t have the financial ability to pay any or all of your damages.
- The person or persons responsible for causing your injuries completely deny liability.
- The person or persons responsible for causing your injuries deny full liability, and blame you, or someone else for contributing to your injuries.
- The other side denies that you were injured, or denies the severity of your injuries, and accuses you of exaggerating your injuries.
- The other side claims that some of your medical treatment was unnecessary, or that the cost of your treatment is excessive.
- The other side claims that some or all of your injuries and symptoms were not caused by the subject accident, and that they either pre-existed, or else came about long after the accident in question.
- The other side claims that you are exaggerating or overstating your income loss.
- The other side claims that you should have been able to work, and thus your income loss claim should be reduced, or eliminated from your claim.
The objective of the other side is not to compensate you fairly; it is to pay you as little as it can get away with, or nothing at all. In attempting to accomplish this goal, the other side, particularly if there is insurance, will go to great lengths, including often engaging in questionable, and sometimes even unfair tactics to avoid compensating you properly.
It is incumbent upon you to take the necessary steps to best preserve and protect your claim. The best assurance you can have in properly protecting your claim is to hire an attorney as soon as possible after the accident has occurred. But that is not always possible, and in any event, does not always happen. If you have not already hired an attorney, you should at least take the following steps to protect yourself and your claim:
A. DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, AND DOCUMENT YOUR CLAIM
Your claim essentially consists of two parts; Liability and Damages. For your claim to get the attention of the other side, you must document, as much as possible and as quickly as possible, both of these elements.
1. Documenting Liability:
If your injuries were caused by an accident, it is very important that there be a report made of the accident. Traffic accidents should be reported to the local police or highway patrol, and should result in a written report. If no such report was made at the time of the accident, you can sometimes call the appropriate police agency and request permission to file a report, or have the police create a report after the fact. If your injuries occurred in a store or place open to the public, make a report to the manager in charge, and ask for a copy of any statement that you make before you leave. If your request is refused, write a letter to the store as soon as possible, detailing the information pertinent to how your injuries were incurred, and mail it to the manager of the store BY CERTIFIED MAIL, RETURN RECEIPT REQUESTED.
Make sure to include as much information in the report as possible, including the full names, addresses and phone numbers of all witnesses and involved persons.
Always keep a copy of anything you give to the other side.
If your injuries were caused by a faulty condition, such as a badly uneven sidewalk, it is imperative that you be able to show the condition. The best way is to have yourself or someone else take plenty of photographs, clearly showing the condition as it existed when your accident occurred. You need to get these photographs taken before the condition is corrected or changed. Use props, such as a ruler or tape measure or other appropriate object, to demonstrate or highlight the problem.
c. Keeping evidence:
Carefully maintain all evidence, (broken bottle, foreign object in your food, shoes you were wearing in a slip and fall case, device that caused your injuries, such as an electrical cord, etc.) in a safe place. If the object is small enough, place a protective cover around the object, and write down important information on the outside.
2. Documenting Damages:
Make sure to take photographs of as much evidence as possible, before the conditions change. That means lots of pictures of your vehicle, taken from close and far, and different angles, showing as much as possible of the areas and extent of damage to the vehicles involved, or the site of, and condition which caused your accident. If your injuries are visible, take photos of abrasions, scrapes, bruises, lacerations, broken bones and casts, slings, collars, as well of you in your surroundings, (hospital or other bed, wheelchair, walker, and the like.) As your injuries progress, make sure to take additional photos, showing changes. Keep careful track of the dates on which all photos are taken.
b. Medical Records:
You should see your doctor, or be seen in the trauma unit at a nearby hospital soon after the accident. Make sure to completely describe all pain that you are having, and do your best to make sure that your doctor carefully writes down your complaints.
c. Income records and documents:
Persons who are self-employed have a harder time establishing their full income loss than do employees. Employees can usually document their income loss by furnishing some pay-check stubs showing a reduction of pay, or need to use up sick leave or vacation leave as a result of being injured and unable to work. That, together with medical records and a letter from the employer is usually considered sufficient to establish income loss.
If you are self-employed, your injury costs your business money. You are either unable to work for some period of time, or you are able to work only part-time, or less efficiently. You may need to hire additional help because of your injuries. A loss in your ability to take care of your customers, clients, or patients can result in a long-term downturn in your business, as a result of your loss of goodwill.
Self- employed people need to have clear books and records, and be willing to show them to the other side. Although the other side cannot force you to show your tax returns, copies of Schedule C’s for similar periods before the accident can be helpful in showing a slowdown in income, or increase in overhead which is due to your injuries.
It is critical to not only have accurate records of your income for a reasonable period of time prior to your accident, but to make sure that you have accurate and detailed business records afterwards. Start documenting these losses immediately, before you lose the information necessary to recreate them.
d. Expense records:
If the accident and your injuries are costing you other out of pocket expenses, (such as housekeeping help, gardening help, baby-sitting help, car rental or taxi fare) make sure to keep a good record. Pay whenever possible by check or credit card, so that you have documentation to support your claim.
e. Consider keeping a diary:
If your injury is materially affecting your lifestyle, it can be a good idea to keep a daily journal, entering such information as the pain and other symptoms you are experiencing, the frequency of the pain, and how it is affecting your ability to partake in your activities.
A. DO Follow your doctor’s instructions: If your doctor has advised you to take time off of work, cut back on certain activities, obtain physical therapy or diagnostic tests, you should do so. Failure to abide with your doctor’s advice will be harmful to your case, and will substantially lower the value of your claim.
B. DO Call an attorney who specializes in personal injury claims: Many personal injury lawyers will be willing to talk to you about your case at no charge. Even if your case is too small to retain an attorney, most personal attorneys will be willing to listen to the details of your claim, and give you some valuable advice which you can use in dealing with the adverse insurance company.
Do not do any of the following things, especially if you are thinking of retaining an attorney:
If you are thinking of retaining an attorney, the following things should be avoided by you, until and unless you first get advice from an attorney:
CAVEAT: If you don’t have an attorney, the adverse insurance company will try to require you to give a tape recorded statement, and sign authorization papers permitting them to get your private records. They will try to get you to sign a settlement and release for less than the value of your case. In fact, they may refuse to deal with you unless you give in to these demands.
A. Do NOT discuss the details of your claim with the other side, or their insurance representative: You may be contacted by the other side’s insurance company. Give out only necessary, general information.
B. Do NOT permit the other side’s insurance company to tape-record your statement: You should never give the other side’s insurance company a written statement, and you should never permit them to take a tape recorded statement from you, without the advice and permission of your attorney.
C. Do NOT sign papers permitting the other side to obtain your records: The other side’s insurance company will usually try to get you to sign papers allowing them to get your medical or other records. If you attempt to settle without an attorney, you should not agree to this without at least first talking to an attorney.
Keep in mind that, if you wish to settle your claim without an attorney, the insurance company for the other side will usually refuse to settle with you unless you agree to do the things listed above. Even if your case is small, you will be better off if you speak to an attorney and get some general advice. If you don’t have an attorney, you can try contacting your local Bar Association. Most counties have a lawyer referral service where you can speak to an attorney for 30 minutes or so for a small charge, (usually less than $50.00).
D. Do NOT settle your case without an attorney’s advice, unless your injuries are minor and have completely resolved: Once you sign a settlement agreement, you can not re-open your claim, even if your injuries are more serious than you thought, or if you later determine that your settlement was unfair or incomplete. If you don’t have an attorney, you should only agree to a settlement if you are sure that your injuries were minor, and have completely, or essentially resolved.
E. Try to NOT discuss the details of your claim with outsiders: You will undoubtedly feel a need to speak to family, friends and co-workers about your accident. Even though you may be tempted to discuss the details of your accident or injuries with friends and co-workers, you should not. These discussions are not confidential. They can be misunderstood or taken out of context. Your discussions are subject to investigation by the other side. Be circumspect about what you say about your case, and who you speak to about it.
You are required to co-operate with your own insurance company, and unreasonable failure to do so may jeopardize your coverage. In most cases, you should allow them to take pictures, analyze your property damage, and obtain necessary information regarding the accident and your injuries.
Keep in mind that you are free to obtain your own damage estimates, and medical advice and treatment. You are not bound to have your car fixed, or your medical treatment performed by persons selected by your automobile insurance company.
CAVEAT: If you will be bringing an uninsured motorist claim, your own insurance company will be your adversary! Consult with an attorney before discussing any aspect of your claim with your insurance company, or allowing them to take your statement. A statement by you which either admits fault, or can be construed as admitting fault, or which is obviously false in a material respect can jeopardize an uninsured, or underinsured motorist claim that you might be entitled to bring.
MAKING A CLAIM FOR YOUR INJURY
In order for a personal injury claim to exist, someone (often called a “third party”) must be liable for causing your injury, and you must have sustained damages as a result. Even if the third party’s liability is clear, and the injuries and damages are significant, your claim may have little merit unless the third party has insurance, or is independently in a financial position to pay the damages to which you are entitled. (However, in certain automobile claims, applicable coverage through an “uninsured motorist” provision of your automobile insurance policy may be used to satisfy your damages claim, up to the full amount of your policy limit. Please see the separate article by Reuben J. Donig, entitled UNINSURED MOTORISTS – The Answers to Six Important Questions About Your Automobile Insurance Policy.)
Most claims for personal injury arise because someone was injured as a result of someone else’s negligence. However, there are sometimes other legal reasons which can give rise to liability. The most common legal grounds for imposing liability are the following:
The vast majority of personal injury claims are based on a claim of negligence (fault) on the part of the third party, (or “tortfeasor” in legal parlance). Negligence of the tortfeasor, which directly leads to the injury, is the basis of probably more than ninety percent of personal injury claims. However, there are several well-recognized exceptions, where liability can be imposed against the third party, even in the absence of negligence. Some of those additional grounds are discussed below:
2. Strict liability:
Strict liability is liability, which is imposed by law on a party, without regard to his or her negligence. This kind of liability can be imposed under circumstances where the liable party is legally responsible for the fault of someone else, usually due to the relationship between them. Examples of strict liability are:
Employers, when injuries have been caused to others by the fault of their employees;
Merchants, wholesalers, and sometimes manufacturers, where persons have been injured by faulty products;
Parents, in some instances where a minor child has caused injury to third party;
Owners of animals with known dangerous propensities, where the animal injuries someone.
One who is liable without regard to negligence is held to be “strictly liable.”
3. Contractual liability:
A party can legally contract to be responsible for paying damages to an injured party. This kind of situation is most commonly found in the area of insurance, where an insurance carrier agrees to be responsible for payment of damages pursuant to a contract or insurance policy.
The term “damages” means the financial or monetary equivalent that is necessary to measure and compensate for your losses. Generally, there are two measures of damages; economic or “special” damages, and non-economic or “general” damages. (A third measure of damages, called “punitive” damages is intended to punish a wrongdoer, and is not tied in to the injured party’s losses. Punitive damages are rarely imposed, and will not be discussed here.)
1. Economic damages:
Economic damages are financial losses that are experienced by the injured person. They most usually consist of past and reasonably certain future medical expense, and past and reasonably certain future income losses, and diminution of earning capacity. Assorted additional elements that frequently are included in economic damages include transportation, and household help incurred during a period of disability, and damage to property.
2. Non-economic damages:
These damages cannot be financially quantified, and usually include things such as pain and suffering, loss of use of a body part, loss of enjoyment brought about by a change of lifestyle, and mental and emotional upset caused by any of these aspects.
If a single tortfeasor can be shown to be solely and completely at fault for causing the accident, he or she will be one hundred percent liable and fully responsible for all reasonable and foreseeable damages which you are legally entitled to recover. If another, separate third party has also behaved negligently and thus contributed to the occurrence, liability for your non-economic damages will be apportioned between them in direct proportion to their respective degree of fault. (However, they will remain “jointly and severally” liable to you for all of your economic damages, meaning that you can collect your total economic damages from them in any combination of amounts that is available.) Finally, if you are found to be partially at fault for causing the accident, or for failing to mitigate your damages afterwards, your entitlement will be reduced accordingly.
The handling of the claim involves a number of steps, from determining whether the claim is viable through the final settlement or other conclusion of the claim. The initial steps which determine whether or not your claim can be settled without suit are the following:
1. Determining the viability of the claim:
Your attorney will conduct an initial interview to get the basic information about your claim. Afterwards, he or she will take the necessary steps to obtain confirming additional information, such as requesting a copy of an accident report, obtaining a copy of your related medical records, obtaining records from your employer or business, hiring an investigator to ascertain the presence and observations of witnesses, and other tasks which are reasonably calculated towards establishing the full amount of your damages.
2. Analyzing the settlement value of the claim:
Proper handling of a case at this stage includes getting a full assessment of your injuries, prognosis, past and future medical costs which will, or are likely to be incurred, getting a medical assessment as to the impact that your injuries and limitations will have on your earnings, ability to perform your job, your household duties, and to engage in your daily activities. It is essential that all aspects, past and future, of your medical condition, your earnings and income potential, and your other out-of-pocket expenses, which relate to your injuries, be fully explored.
In cases involving more then the most minor injuries, appropriate analysis of the dollar figure, which fairly represents compensation for your pain and suffering, (general damages) can be quite complex. A proper determination of what constitutes fair compensation for pain and suffering usually requires skill, research, and years of experience and training.
3. Attempting to settle the claim without bringing suit:
After completing the initial investigation and assessment of your claim, your lawyer will attempt to work with the insurance representatives for the other parties to see whether the parties can come to agreement regarding liability and damages. A case which is properly analyzed and developed in this fashion can often be settled favorably without need for litigation.
4. Filing suit and initiating litigation:
If the case cannot be settled amicably, or if the statute of limitations is about to expire, it is necessary to file suit to protect and move forward with the claim.
A lawsuit must be filed if it appears that your case cannot otherwise be successfully settled and concluded. Furthermore, in order to protect your interests, you are required to file a lawsuit within the legally prescribed period of time, unless your case has already been successfully settled. In most cases, that period of time is two years from the date of the injury. However, different, and sometimes shorter periods do apply, particularly where a defendant is a governmental entity, or an agency of a governmental entity.
A lawsuit starts the path towards ultimate resolution of the case, either by trial, or, in most cases by a settlement achieved prior to trial.
A lawsuit involves a number of different procedural steps and aspects. The following is a list of the most common ones:
1. Drafting, Filing, and Serving the Lawsuit:
The lawsuit itself must be properly drafted, and must contain the necessary allegations against the properly designated defendants. Failure to meet these requirements subjects the lawsuit itself to attack. The papers must be filed in the appropriate court, and within the prescribed period of time allowed by law. After filing, a copy of the lawsuit and a properly prepared summons must be delivered (“served”) on the defendants.
Completion of this process requires the defendant to answer the complaint, and brings the defendant before the court.
2. Discovery and Investigation:
After a properly prepared lawsuit has been filed and served on the defendants, the process known as discovery begins. Discovery is the process by which each side obtains information about the basis for the other side’s claims and/or defenses. Since discovery responses are answered under oath, there are stringent requirements for giving truthful and complete responses, and potentially serious penalties for failure to do so.
Remember, other than for very rare exceptions, your attorney will be with you and will assist you in every aspect of responding to discovery. And while you are supplying responsive information to the other side, your attorney will be conducting discovery against the defendants as well.
The following are the generally utilized forms of discovery:
Depositions are a procedure where the attorneys are permitted to ask questions of the parties and other witnesses, and to require answers under oath. Depositions are usually taken in person, in the lawyer’s office or another agreed-upon place. The questions and answers are taken down stenographically by a certified court reporter, and a transcript of the deposition is prepared for future use and reference.
Interrogatories are written questions which must be answered in writing, under oath, usually within thirty days. Because the procedure is less conducive than depositions towards obtaining information on the ultimate facts, interrogatories are usually used to obtain foundational information, and the names and identities of essential witnesses.
C. Requests for Admissions:
Requests for admission are foundational questions used to determine and frame the foundational issues of the case.
D. Requests for inspection of documents and things:
This discovery device is a very useful tool, requiring the responding party to gather together and furnish to the requesting party all manner of documents which in any way pertain to the relevant issues, as designated in the request. Examples of such documents would be photos of the accident scene, photos of damage, x-rays and medical records, business and personal income records, diaries and journal entries, and the like. Except for certain privileged documents, practically any category of documents may be requested and obtained through his discovery device, so long as the documents requested are reasonably relevant to the issues in the case.
E. Defense medical examinations:
Persons making a claim for injuries may reasonably be subjected to a physical examination by a doctor of the defendants’ choosing, in order to establish a position as to whether the injuries are related to the accident, whether the injuries claimed are real or exaggerated, and to obtain a prognosis.
3. Retaining Experts:
Experts are designated and are retained to offer opinions on matters relevant to the claim. Typically, experts in a personal injury claim might include doctors, accident reconstruction experts, economists, accountants, and vocational rehabilitation specialists. This list is not all-inclusive.
It is usually the attorney’s role to locate, retain and communicate with the experts retained to help you present your claim. However, your own doctor or accountant or similar professional may sometimes be designated and used as an expert, where appropriate.
4. Alternative Dispute Resolution:
Even after suit has been filed, cases sometimes can be resolved through a means other than litigation. The most typical of these methods are arbitration and mediation.
Arbitration is a system where a decision on the case is made by an arbitrator. This process can be utilized either by agreement between the parties, or the court can order the parties to go to arbitration as a procedural step in the lawsuit.
When parties agree to arbitrate their dispute, they usually agree to be bound by the result, thus putting an end to the claim. Judicially ordered arbitration results, on the other hand, are usually not binding, and any party to such an arbitration procedure can request that the matter be placed back on the trial calendar simply by making a timely request to the court.
Mediation is a process where the parties agree to try to resolve their differences with the assistance of a trained professional, called the mediator. Mediators are usually lawyers or retired judges who have special expertise in the field of personal injury claims. The mediator does not have the authority to render a decision, force a result on the parties, or to make orders.
5. Settlement conferences:
As the case draws near to trial, the court will require the parties to engage in settlement conferences, which are overseen by a settlement conference judge. Although the judge cannot absolutely force the parties to settle their case, the judge usually uses the court’s considerable influence to attempt to convince the parties to settle. Cases which are still pending usually are settled through this process.
6. Pre-trial motions:
A motion is a procedure where a party to a lawsuit applies to the court for a ruling on a particular issue. Motions are typically sought to allow the “moving party” to take certain action, or to have the court order the other side do something it has refused to do, or to ask that the court itself take certain action with regard to the case.
Trial offers the parties the last resort to resolve their case. Trial involves the use of testimony by the parties and their experts and other witnesses. Trial can be either to a jury or to the court directly. The process is costly and high risk, and more than ninety percent of all lawsuits, which are filed, are settled without trial.
Costs will always be involved in bringing a claim. At the very least, you will need to obtain a copy of your relevant medical records, and will be charged a copying fee. Even if you do not need to file suit, in most cases, it will be necessary to obtain at least one medical report from the doctor primarily involved in treating you for your injuries. Charges of $500.00 or more are not uncommon for such reports. If other experts are needed to establish important elements of your case, you will need to pay for them as well.
If you need to pursue a lawsuit, the costs will rise dramatically. You will lose a measure of control over the costs, because they will be largely governed by the tactics of the other side. Depositions, filing fees, copying charges and the like can add up to a significant amount. The costs and charges of experts frequently constitutes the greatest expense in litigation.
As a general rule, if you are able to settle your case prior to trial, you should anticipate that your costs will be approximately ten percent of the total amount you are hoping to achieve as a result. The costs will go up significantly if the case actually goes to trial.
Additionally, if you retain an attorney on a contingency basis, you should expect to be charged anywhere from one-third to forty percent of your settlement as a fee.
A lien is a legal device for securing a money claim. In personal injury situations, liens usually arise as a result of a written agreement between the injured person and his or her health insurance carriers or providers. The claimant’s attorney usually receives a lien on the file as well, in order to secure his or her right to receive a fee from the personal injury settlement or judgment proceeds.
By placing an effective written lien on the file, these creditors of yours can receive payment or reimbursement directly form your monetary recovery.
Typical examples of liens are claims from health care insurers who have provided you with benefits related to treatment for your injuries from the subject accident. An insurance carrier’s right to place a lien against your personal injury claim file is usually provided for by the health insurance policy itself. Thus, even though you have paid insurance premiums in order to purchase your health coverage benefits, the carrier can often assert a right to be reimbursed for medical payments it has made on your behalf. And if Medicare or Medical have paid for your treatment, the law gives these agencies a right of reimbursement from your financial recovery against the person responsible for your injuries.
If you do not have adequate health insurance, your health care providers may also require that you sign a lien, as a condition of continuing to provide treatment.
Liens can sometimes be successfully negotiated and reduced by your attorney, thus giving the client additional financial benefit from the gross settlement.
You will usually have a better result with an attorney than without one. However, this may not always mean more money in your pocket. In rare instances, fees and costs may exceed the added financial benefit that an attorney brings to the case.
For the smaller cases, (having a total value of less than $10,000) it is often advisable to attempt to resolve the claim directly with the insurance company, and without an attorney. Even in cases having an apparent value of up to $15,000, an attorney may be reluctant to take all but the most straightforward of cases (those where both liability and the nature and extent of injury is clear).
In most cases, you will usually benefit from retaining an attorney.* Your benefits generally will include the following:
1. Most of the time, your net recovery will be greater than if you had handled the claim yourself;
2. Your rights will be protected, and you will not lose them by failing to take the necessary or timely action;
3. Your attorney will explore the necessary aspects of your case more fully than you can on your own, and these far reaching aspects will be factored into the evaluation and settlement of your claim;
4. You will be freed from the responsibility of taking care of time-consuming and confusing paperwork which is a large part of every injury claim;
5. Finally, in most cases, you will have the peace of mind of knowing that your claim has been handled professionally, and that you obtained a fair result.
UNINSURED MOTORIST COVERAGE
Uninsured (including underinsured) motorist coverage is a part of almost every automobile policy sold in California. Your uninsured motorist coverage is designed to compensate you for a loss which you sustain, and which is caused by a driver who is uninsured, or inadequately insured.
Your insurance company is required by law to include uninsured motorist coverage as part of every automobile policy written, unless you specifically decline it, in writing. Coverage is usually designated on the face page of your automobile insurance policy by the letter or letters “U” or “UM”.
When you purchase uninsured motorist coverage as part of a policy, it affords coverage for you and all members of your family who reside in your household with you. It would also include any minor children of yours who do not reside with you or your children who are away at college.
You do not have to be an automobile driver or passenger in order to be eligible for benefits. Your automobile UM policy applies even if you were a pedestrian, bicyclist, motorcyclist, or bystander, so long as the motorist who caused your injuries was uninsured or underinsured.
Your uninsured motorist coverage also applies for the benefit of other passengers in your car or other people driving your car with your permission, and who are injured by an uninsured or underinsured driver.
Uninsured motorist vehicle coverage comes into play whenever anyone who is insured is injured by a driver who is uninsured or underinsured (does not have enough insurance to pay for the damages caused). An uninsured driver includes a hit-and-run driver, so long as there is some actual contact from the hit-and-run driver’s vehicle.
Underinsured motorist coverage only applies if the other driver’s liability limits are lower than your uninsured coverage limits. Thus, if the driver who causes the accident has a liability policy of $30,000.00 per person, you are not entitled to any uninsured or underinsured motorist benefits if your uninsured motorist coverage is for $30,000.00 per person/$60,000.00 aggregate. If, however, you have uninsured motorist coverage of $100,000.00 per person/$300,000.00 aggregate, you could receive up to the $70,000.00 difference from your own company for an injury to one person, and up to $240,000.00 additional insurance from your own company if there were injuries to three or more of your family members, or passengers in your car.
Uninsured motorist coverage is intended to compensate you for both your financial and your non-financial losses which you sustain, and for which you have a legal claim as a result of the negligence of an uninsured, underinsured, or hit-and-run driver. Your financial losses would include any medical expenses which you reasonably required as a result of such an incident, any loss of income or earnings, any diminution in your ability to earn money in the future, or any assorted out-of-pocket expenses such as household and related help and assistance.
Non-financial damages include such elements as loss of ability to enjoy or engage in certain activities as a result of injuries, pain and suffering, and other such subjective losses for which you are entitled to monetary compensation under the law. There is usually no exact way of pinpointing an appropriate amount of compensation for this factor, but insurance people and attorneys are often able to come to an accommodation based upon the severity of the injury, whether it fully heals, what kinds of treatment are necessary and how much time is required in order to achieve an optimum recovery.
Your insurance company is only required to issue uninsured motorist policy in a minimum amount of $30,000.00 per person/ $60,000.00 aggregate, regardless of the fact that you might be purchasing a much higher liability policy (policy which pays others for their injuries when you are at fault). Furthermore, if your liability policy is less than $30,000.00/$60,000.00, your insurance company will only issue UM coverage in a matching amount. Thus, if you have a $15,000.00/$30,000.00 liability policy, your insurance company will offer uninsured motorist coverage for only $15,000.00/$30,000.00.
However, many, if not most insurance companies will allow you to purchase uninsured motorist benefits in an amount equal to your liability policy. Thus, if you have a $100,000.00/$300,000.00 liability policy for example, you usually will be able to purchase uninsured motorist benefits in that amount as well.
CAUTION: Many insurance companies will automatically issue a $30,000.00/$60,000.00 policy of uninsured motorist benefits when issuing a policy with higher liability limits. If this happens to you, contact your broker immediately and find out how much more it would cost to have your uninsured motorist benefits raised to match your liability policy limit.
This of course is a very personal question, and there is no one correct answer. To some extent, the amount that you need will be tied in to the amount of liability insurance that you can afford.
Also, if you are a high-income earner, and a prolonged injury would substantially impair your earning capacity, you should have substantial UM protection.
In any event, no prudent person should have less than $100,000.00 per person/$300,000.00 aggregate of this sort of protection. Of course, this will mean that your liability policy needs to be written in that amount as well. The cost of purchasing this coverage may be a stretch financially for some people. However, the current situation existing in the State of California, makes an uninsured motorist protection of less than $100,000.00 per person/$300,000.00 aggregate extremely risky and if you can afford it, you should obtain even a higher limit.
Keeping these suggested limits in mind, a good rule of thumb would be – let your uninsured motorist coverage match your liability coverage. Obtain at least as much protection for yourself and your family as you purchase for the protection of others.
For those of you who are homeowners, you might also ask your broker about umbrella policies, which, in addition to providing all sorts of excess liability protection, often offer excess uninsured motorist protection for you as well.