In automobile crash personal injury cases, the injured person’s underinsured motorist policy limits often dictate the maximum recovery available to that person. For example, imagine an innocent driver who sustains severe permanent injuries in a pile-up collision with multiple cars. That innocent driver may have medical bills and income loss. Now imagine that the pile-up was caused by the separate negligent acts of two bad drivers, each with only $25,000 in liability coverage, while the innocent driver has a $500,000 underinsured motorist policy. Under those circumstances, many attorneys think that the injured person’s maximum recovery would be the $500,000 underinsured motorist policy limits, and would consider the case a success once that amount was tendered by the injured person’s insurer.
However, part of any good tort attorney’s job is to analyze all proper possible sources of recovery for the injured person. The policy limits of underinsured motorist coverage may be separately available for every distinct “accident” the insured may be involved in. The Oregon Supreme Court, in Wright v. Turner, recently recognized that in a pile-up situation, if there is sufficient time between successive collisions, each collision could be a separate “accident.” Accordingly, with each collision, the available policy limits of the underinsured motorist coverage may arise anew. It is a question of fact for the jury as to whether each collision into a pile-up is a separate “accident” or simply part of one large “accident.” So in the above example, where two separate bad drivers hit the pile-up and injured the innocent driver, if the attorney diligently and accurately gathers the evidence that each collision into the pile-up was sufficiently separate, the innocent driver actually may receive the full $500,000 in underinsured motorists benefits twice, for a total of $1,000,000 (once for each car’s collision).
If you are helping a client with a car collision injury claim, it’s always helpful to keep in mind the recent lessons of Wright v. Turner. If you are referring an injury case to another attorney, it is critical that the attorney look at all possible defendants and insurance policies. For example, in the scenario above, an attorney who looks carefully at all the possible resources could help the injured person go from having only half of his or her losses covered, to being fully and fairly compensated. The responsible attorney must promptly investigate and analyze the circumstances to determine how best to help each injured client.
Oregon may be the only state in the country where you cannot hold your own auto insurance company accountable for unfairly evaluating the value of your claim. What does that mean? We all know bad driving happens. A careless driver may crash into your vehicle and cause serious injury to you or your loved one. Serious car accidents can result in enormous medical bills and loss of the ability to earn a living for a period of time. The financial burden can reach into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
Underinsured Motorist (UIM) Coverage
When the careless driver that caused the injuries has only the minimum coverage under the law ($25,000), the other driver’s insurance does not even begin to meet the losses he caused. Because of this risk, many of us carry additional underinsured motorist (“UIM”) coverage with our own insurance companies. This typically ranges from $50,000 to $1,000,000. Under these policies, your insurance company is supposed to pay you for the total amount of the harm you suffered regardless of the amount of insurance the bad driver carries, up to your own UIM limits.
Many people trust their own insurance companies and believe that payment is based on a fair investigation of their injuries and losses. However, we are increasingly seeing insurance companies refuse to fairly assess the losses that their customers suffer from underinsured drivers. Instead, customers who have faithfully paid their premiums for years are offered only a fraction of what is due to them in light of the severity of their injuries and losses. Because they trust their insurance company, some injured persons will take those low-ball offers. As a result, the insurance company avoids paying the full amount that it is obligated to pay. In other situations, the injured parties recognize the evaluation as unfair and contact an attorney to bring a case against the insurance company so that a neutral third party, such as an arbitrator, will be used to make a fair evaluation.
Standing Up Against Big Insurance Companies
Recently, we took such a case to arbitration. A careless driver had hit our client, a doctor, at a stop light, causing our client to need neck surgery. She suffered permanent injury as a result of the accident that caused her to lose part of her past and future income. The Farmers insurance company offered only $50,000 of additional money on her underinsured motorist policy. The bad driver’s insurer settled for $100,000. The facts were simple and the insurance company had very weak evidence to support their argument. We obtained overwhelming evidence that the doctor indeed suffered serious medical, physical, and financial losses. The arbitrator fairly evaluated the claim at $380,000.
We are familiar with other cases in Oregon in which Farmers insurance and other insurance companies refused to fairly assess their insured’s underinsured motorist claims. In these cases, the only way for the injured person to fairly recover is to bring the case to trial or arbitration.
In other states, insurance companies would be subject to a bad faith claim if they ever chose to unfairly evaluate their customer’s claims. Those bad faith claims could result in punitive damages. Exposure to punitive damages is a deterrent against such conduct by insurance companies in those states. But in Oregon, there is no punishment for an insurance company that acts this way.