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 major medical bills and income losses. Now imagine that the pile-up was caused by the separate negligent acts of two other drivers, each with only $25,000 in liability coverage, while the innocent driver has a $500,000 underinsured motorist policy. Under those circumstances, some attorneys may think that the injured person’s maximum recovery would be $550,000 ($500,000 underinsured motorist policy limits plus the two $25,000 liability policies), and would consider the case a success once that amount was obtained.
However, part of any good personal injury 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 each distinct “accident” the insured may be involved in. The Oregon Supreme Court, in Wright v. Turner, recognized that in a pile-up situation, if there is sufficient time between successive collisions, each collision could be a separate “accident.” Accordingly, each collision may have up to the maximum available policy limits of underinsured motorist coverage. 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 and injured the innocent driver, if an attorney diligently and accurately gathers the evidence that each collision in the pile-up was sufficiently separate, the innocent driver actually may be entitled to recover up to the full $500,000 in underinsured motorists benefits twice, for a total of $1,050,000 (once for each car’s collision, plus the two $25,000 liability policy limits).
If an attorney is helping someone with a car collision injury claim, it’s always helpful to keep in mind the lessons of Wright v. Turner. It is critical that the attorney look at all possible defendants and all potentially available insurance policies. For example, in the scenario above, if the losses truly totaled $1,050,000, 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 compensated.