By Lorna Thackeray
"If I could write a headline, it would say 'Buy Uninsured
and Underinsured Motorist Coverage,' " says Billings
attorney Randy Bishop.
Bishop, a plaintiff's attorney who often represents auto accident
victims, calls it "the cheapest, most important insurance
you can buy."
It protects you against the negligence of others, he said,
and you need as much protection as you can afford.
"Get as much as you wish the other guy had, if you knew
the other guy was going to run into you and cause a brain
injury," he said.
Insurance agent Vickie McCormick of Insurance Agency of Montana
said she likes to write policies with $100,000 coverage for
one person injured in an accident with a $300,000 total for
accidents with multiple victims.
"State limits are not enough to protect you," she
Most people go with at least $50,000/$100,000 liability coverage,
she said. Insurance professionals usually recommend that uninsured
and underinsured coverage match the liability limits.
The state requires drivers to have $25,000 coverage for one
person injured and $50,000 per accident. Insurance companies
are legally obligated to offer uninsured- and underinsured-motorist
coverage along with liability coverage, but drivers are not
required to buy it.
Bishop said that state liability minimums haven't changed
in the 26 years he's been practicing law and that they aren't
close to being adequate today.
"That's about a two-day stay in ICU, if you hit someone
in a crosswalk," he said. "It doesn't cover lost
wages. It doesn't cover medical bills. It doesn't get you
rehabilitated. It doesn't get you anything."
Even if you think you are well-protected, Bishop suggests
reading the declaration page of your policy and talking to
your insurance agent.
What your insurance does and doesn't cover may surprise you.
Most uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage, for instance,
will help you pay your medical bills, but it won't fix your
car. Some companies have started writing coverage for property
damage, McCormick said. But don't assume you have it.
Be aware that, depending on the policy, your uninsured-and
uninsured-motorist coverage may not cover you while you are
a pedestrian, Bishop said. Some policies apply only if you
are a passenger in an uninsured vehicle.
On the other hand, your policy probably contains some coverage
you can tap to get through the worst of an encounter with
an uninsured motorist.
Most people carry about $5,000 of medical coverage on their
vehicle policies, which can be tapped to pay hospital and
doctor bills regardless of who's at fault, he said.
People with newer cars usually buy enough collision insurance
to cover damage to their vehicle. But collision coverage is
expensive, and most policies have a fairly high deductible.
Often, the deductible comes out of the victim's pocket. It
could also cost the victim his accident-free standing when
its time to renew the policy, McCormick said.
Health insurance, if you have it, may take care of medical
bills, but a lot of people in Montana work low-paying jobs
with no medical benefits. An injury to a single parent going
to school and working a minimum-wage, no-benefit job can bury
a promising future in medical debt, said Billings attorney
When he gets calls from desperate victims of uninsured motorists,
he usually has to tell them there is nothing he can do to
help. There just is no logical reason to file a lawsuit, Graves
"You can't collect if they (the uninsured driver) have
no property," he said. "If they do have property,
they can just file bankruptcy."
Most of their property would probably be exempt from judgment
under bankruptcy laws, he said.
Billings bankruptcy attorney Stephen Mackey said bankruptcy
law protects $100,000 equity in a home, $2,500 equity in one
vehicle for each person in the bankruptcy and household goods
up to $4,500 for each person.
Mackey said that once or twice a year he handles cases for
victims of uninsured motorists who have accumulated medical
bills they can't pay.
"What's really unfortunate is when they become unemployed
because they just can't work," he said.
Mackey said he's also seen cases of uninsured motorist protecting
their assets from victims through bankruptcy filings. Victims
don't get any priority among other debtors, unless the driver
was drunk at the time of the accident, he said. Judgments
arising from DUI convictions can not be discharged in a bankruptcy.
Many uninsured motorists are "judgment-proof,"
"They have an old car and no insurance," he said.
"They are so broke there is no need to file bankruptcy."