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.