ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Prepare for underinsured motorists – buy your own

By Lorna Thackeray
Billings Gazzette

"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 said.

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 Jim Graves.

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 said.

"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," Mackey said.

"They have an old car and no insurance," he said. "They are so broke there is no need to file bankruptcy."