Car Accidents Involving Uninsured & Underinsured Drivers

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Even the most minor car accident can be a major annoyance. When it comes to injuries, repairs, auto insurance issues, and potential lawsuits, even a minor “fender bender” can quickly spiral out of control. And when one or both parties in an accident have deficient car insurance or no insurance at all, more complications can arise.

No-Fault States

In general, auto insurance laws in the United States fall into one of two categories: traditional negligence and no-fault. The vast majority of states fall into the traditional negligence category. Essentially, a traditional negligence state is a state that deals with recovery from auto claims by looking first and foremost at who was actually or legally at-fault for the accident. States operating under this model generally have less stringent insurance requirements—or no requirements at all. As such, the issue of uninsured or underinsured motorists is much more prominent, as an accident victim’s recovery of damage comes through the at-fault party’s insurance company. If the at-fault party has little or no insurance, recovery becomes very difficult.

In no-fault states, each and every vehicle owner is required to carry their own auto insurance or have coverage under the policy of another individual. Proof of insurance is required to obtain the appropriate vehicle registration. Minimum coverage amounts vary from state to state. As a result, there is a cottage industry of “bare minimum” insurers that provide (for a steep fee, but still less than a so-called “real” insurance policy) the minimum amount of coverage legally required.

To say that bare minimum policies holders are underinsured would be a gross understatement. However, in no-fault states, the victim of an accident collects from his or her own insurance company, as a matter of law. If you get hit, your insurance covers the repairs. If you get injured, your insurance company covers your medical expenses. Certainly, there are instances where recovery from the at-fault driver’s insurance company can occur, but this is the exception, not the rule.

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Traditional Negligence States

If you live in a traditional negligence state, and are hit by an uninsured or underinsured motorist, problems could arise. If your injuries are catastrophic and require ongoing care, an underinsured motorist’s policy may run out before your treatment concludes. Along the same lines, it is possible that an underinsured motorist’s coverage may not be large enough to fully repair or replace your vehicle. So what can you do to protect yourself in this type of scenario?

The easiest way to protect yourself from an uninsured or underinsured motorist is to purchase uninsured or underinsured coverage from your own insurance company. For an additional fee, many auto insurance companies will provide extra coverage in the event you are in an accident with an uninsured or underinsured motorist. If you have this particular type of coverage, you would first make a claim with and collect all you can from the uninsured or underinsured motorist, and then make a claim with your own insurance company for the balance.

The process sounds relatively simple, but if you’re even the slightest bit at-fault for the accident or there is some dispute as to the facts of the case, you will be in for a fight with twoinsurance companies. And your potential recovery may be greatly reduced. Insurance companies do not make money by paying claims, and as a general rule they’ll do whatever they can to avoid writing a check. Be persistent, but be prepared for an onerous and lengthy process. It may be a hassle, but if you have the proper underinsured/uninsured coverage, you’ll likely be taken care of.

Lack of Coverage – Car Accident Negligence Claims

Many states do not require motorists to purchase uninsured or underinsured coverage. So what happens when you are in an accident with a motorist with deficient insurance and you can’t collect from your own insurance company? At that point, the courts are your best option. Auto accident negligence claims are very common in traditional negligence states. You get hit, you’re injured, you can’t collect insurance, and you file a lawsuit. Again, it sounds relatively simple, but the reality is that will likely not be the case.

First and foremost, you must prove that the person who hit you is at fault for the accident. While in some cases this is easy (particularly if the person who hit you was issued a ticket or citation, or was arrested and charged with a crime), in other cases the issue of fault is murky. And if you are even partially at fault, your potential recovery can be greatly reduced. Insurance adjusters, judges and juries are all capable of assigning a percentage of fault to you, as well as to the person that hit you.

In some states, as long as your percentage of fault is less than 50 percent, you can recover the full amount of any judgment. In other states, you may only recover based on the other party’s percentage of fault. So if a judge or jury found that the person who hit you was 75 percent at fault and you were 25 percent at fault, any potential award would be reduced by 25 percent. Apportionment of liability is often a dogfight, whether it happens in court or between an injured party and an insurance adjuster. And even if you eventually win in court, there is no guarantee that you will be paid.

The sad reality is that people who either don’t have insurance, or simply carry the bare minimum required by law, are often uncollectable. In the legal world, uncollectable means that regardless of how successful a lawsuit, the defendant has no money and no assets of any value. So even if you win your case, all you’ll be left with is a judgment that cannot be enforced. The old adage about squeezing blood from a stone would apply.

Getting Legal Help

If an uninsured or underinsured motorist hits you, a consultation with an auto accident attorney can go a long way toward protecting your right to recovery. Whether dealing with your insurance company, the at-fault driver’s auto insurance company or deciding whether to file a lawsuit, a local auto negligence attorney will be in the best position to advise you on the auto insurance laws of your state as well as your options under those laws.

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