By: Joseph R. Lucia
The unfortunate reality of operating a motor vehicle (on-duty or off-duty) is that you can’t control the actions of other motorists. Becoming a victim of an automobile accident is often unavoidable and in many instances results in significant injuries that can impact or even end your career. For many public employees, especially first responders, that risk is heightened due to the frequency and duration you are required to travel in a vehicle.
Victims of automobile accidents are responsible to pay for medical bills, take leave to cover missed time at work and incur out-of-pocket expenses. One of the biggest misconceptions of suffering an on-the-job injury is that an injured worker is only entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. That is simply not true. Not only do you have the ability to bring a claim against the insurance carrier of the driver who caused the accident, but you may also be able to bring a claim through your own personal automobile insurance in what is defined as an Uninsured Motorist (“UM”) or Underinsured Motorist (“UIM”) claim. It is important to understand that these options are also available if you’re involved in an off-duty accident.
When is the last time you reviewed your automobile insurance coverage limits? Chances are that unless you have been involved in an accident, you haven’t. Frankly, it would not be a surprise if you didn’t even know where to look in order to figure out what coverage you currently possess. The importance of personal automobile insurance, in particular UM/UIM coverage, is commonly overlooked, which can have devastating impacts on your family. This article will supply you with the requisite knowledge and understanding of UM/UIM coverage so you can take the necessary steps to protect you and your family.
What is UM/UIM Coverage?
UM/UIM is a benefit available under your own insurance policy and pays you for past and future damages (medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering) caused by an uninsured or underinsured motor vehicle driver. In California, the minimum insurance coverage a driver is required to possess is $15,000 to cover damages resulting from an injury or death.
UM coverage applies when the at-fault party has no insurance, or when the vehicle involved in the collision has been stolen or involved in a hit-and-run accident. UIM coverage applies when the injured party’s damages exceed the at-fault party’s liability insurance and the injured party possesses a UIM policy for an amount less than the at-fault party’s liability insurance.
UM/UIM coverage can be used to cover other passengers in the vehicle and family members, such as your spouse and/or children.
Why is UM/UIM coverage so important?
Workers’ compensation benefits are limited and won’t pay for all of your damages. For example, workers’ compensation covers medical bills and base wages, but missed overtime shifts and the “pain and suffering” you’ve experienced as a result of being injured are not. You will almost always need another source of recovery.
Many drivers don’t understand the importance of having good insurance coverage, or don’t have assets that they need protected, so they look to purchase the cheapest available insurance policy. There is also a high percentage of motorists in California with no insurance at all. Should you be involved in an accident where the at-fault driver has no insurance or lacks adequate liability insurance, the only way to ensure that you will recover all your losses is through your our own UM/UIM motorist coverage.
Below is an unfortunate hypothetical fact pattern based on actual cases our firm has handled and will help to illustrate the importance of UM/UIM coverage:
You are driving your vehicle and suddenly you are struck by a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed. You spin out of control and hit the center divider. You are taken to the hospital and informed that you will need surgery to repair a fracture. The doctors also discover an injury to your cervical spine (neck). The combination of these injuries has caused significant and permanent physical impairments, which have rendered you unemployable. You are left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills and stand to lose wages and benefits equaling over one-million dollars since you planned on continuing your job for another 15 years. The at-fault party only has the minimum insurance coverage of $15,000.
Based on the above hypothetical, here are some potential outcomes:
1. If you have no UIM coverage, or only the statutory UIM minimum, then all you can be paid is $15,000 from the at-fault party.
2. If you have $100,000 of UIM coverage, then you would recover $15,000 from the at-fault party and an additional $85,000 from your UIM coverage, for a total of $100,000.
3. If you have $1,000,000 of UIM coverage, then you would recover $15,000 from the at-fault party and an additional $985,000 from your UIM coverage, for a total of $1,000,000.
Seems rather obvious that Option #3 provides for the most desirable outcome, which is due to the presence of the $1,000,000 UIM coverage.
How do I know if I have UM/UIM coverage?
California mandates that insurance companies include $15,000 of UM coverage, unless the coverage is specifically waived. Thus, it is possible that you have some UM/UIM coverage, but it may only be the $15,000 minimum, which is essentially meaningless because it means you will not recover any additional money (see hypothetical above). This is the big secret insurance companies attempt to avoid when you purchase insurance, so it is incumbent upon you to demand a much larger UM/UIM policy.
In order to determine what coverage you possess, you will first need to locate your automobile insurance policy. Within your policy you will find a document titled “Declarations Page” which is usually the first page of the policy. The declarations page lists different types of information, such as the name of the insurance company, names of persons covered by the policy, vehicles that are covered, and a summary of the different applicable coverage limits, including UM/UIM.
Steps to ensure you have proper UM/UIM coverage - act now!
Motor vehicle accidents are unpredictable and can occur at any moment. You should act now and make sure that you have appropriate coverage that is effective on the date of any accident.
1. Obtain your automobile insurance declarations page;
2. Determine whether you have Uninsured and/or Underinsured Motorist Coverage, and if so, the applicable limits of coverage;
3. Contact your broker or agent and ask what the maximum amount of UM and UIM is offered by your automobile insurance company. You will be pleasantly surprised that you can likely purchase $1,000,000 or more of UM/UIM coverage with a very slight increase to your annual insurance premiums.
4. If you have been injured in an automobile accident, contact an attorney from RLS to help navigate the complicated layers of insurance coverage and ensure that you are protecting yourself and your family. Please contact an RLS attorney if you have any questions about how UM/UIM operates, or want some guidance on how to obtain proper insurance coverage.
About the author
Joseph R. Lucia is an attorney in the firm’s Injury Resource and Litigation Group, Legal Defense of Peace Officers Practice Group, and Collective Bargaining Practice Group.