What Happens If I Am in An Accident With An Uninsured Driver?
Most of us wouldn’t dream of getting behind the wheel of a car without insurance. Not only does insurance help to protect others and ourselves, but it is also required by the law. Yet…some people do drive without insurance, more often than we would like. And when uninsured drivers cause accidents, it creates even bigger issues — particularly for their victims.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, as of 2015, an estimated 7.6% of all drivers in Pennsylvania and 14.9% of all drivers in New Jersey drove without insurance. With nearly 9,000,000 drivers registered in Pennsylvania and over 6,300,000 registered in New Jersey, there are approximately 684,000 uninsured drivers in Pennsylvania and 938,700 in New Jersey.
For individuals who have been injured in an accident with an uninsured driver, there are options for pursuing recovery. While it may be futile to file a claim against the driver, you may be able to seek damages from your own insurance company.
Understanding Uninsured and Underinsured Motorist Coverage
In both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, all drivers are required to maintain a minimum level of insurance. This is a basic level of coverage that provides protection in the event that you are in an accident. However, Pennsylvania does not require drivers to purchase uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage, although this coverage must be offered by an insurance carrier. A motorist in Pennsylvania must specifically waive uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage by using a very specific waiver form.
New Jersey law requires that uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage be included with policies other than standard or basic auto insurance policies.
Uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, known as UM/UIM, is a type of coverage will pay for property damage or bodily injury if you are in an accident with a person who does not have insurance, or whose insurance is insufficient to meet your expenses. It will also cover your damages if you are in a hit-and-run accident or if the at-fault driver in a collision is otherwise unknown.
UM coverage applies to you, as the driver, along with relatives residing in your household and any passengers in your car, if you are injured by an uninsured driver who was at fault for the accident (including a hit-and-run driver). Pennsylvania UM policies do not include coverage for property damage, which is usually covered by the separate category of collision coverage. UM policies in NJ are required to carry a minimum of $5,000 in property damage coverage.
UIM coverage is similar in that it applies to the policyholder, any relatives who live with you, and passengers who are injured by an at-fault driver. It also does not cover property damage in Pennsylvania, but should in New Jersey. However, it provides coverage for situations where the other driver does not have sufficient insurance to pay a claim for personal injuries and other damages.
A UM/UIM policy may kick in if you are in a crash where your damages are over $100,000, but the other driver has a policy with a limit of $15,000 in bodily injury liability (the minimum in Pennsylvania). In this situation, you may be able to file a claim against your own insurance policy to cover the gap between what the at-fault driver’s insurance will pay and your expenses.
In Pennsylvania, you can also choose to stack UM/UIM coverage. This means that the amount of money you have available under your coverage will be multiplied by the number of vehicles insured on your policy. For example, if you have $100,000 in stacked UIM coverage, and you have three vehicles, then you may be able to recover up to $300,000 in UIM benefits.
In New Jersey, there is no stacking available. Also, NJ’s driver’s policy is offset by the amount of money available from the defendant’s policy. For example, if a defendant driver hurts you and that driver has $50,000 in liability coverage and you have $100,000 in UIM benefits, you must first obtain the $50,000 from the other driver. However, you will only be able to recover an additional $50,000 from your own policy, which will bring your total recovery to $100,000. Your recovery from your own UIM policy limits will always be reduced by the amount you received from the other driver.
Another unfair point about NJ law, is if the defendant driver has the same amount of liability coverage as you have UIM coverage, then the policies offset and you cannot recover any UIM benefits.
In this example, if a defendant driver has $100,000 in liability coverage and you have $100,000 in UIM benefits, you will be precluded from obtaining any additional money from a UIM claim and will be limited to the $100,000 from the defendant driver’s policy. The simple thing to remember is that you must have a higher UIM policy limit than what the defendant driver has in coverage in order to recover UIM benefits.
Can You File a Claim Against an Uninsured Driver?
If you are hit by a driver who does not have car insurance — in violation of Pennsylvania or New Jersey law — you may still file a claim against the driver. Even if the driver does not have the proper insurance coverage, they can still be found legally responsible for your damages. In that situation, they may be held personally liable for any judgment.
Of course, recovering for a personal injury award against an uninsured driver is often difficult. If a person does not have insurance, it is often because they are unable to afford it. If the at-fault driver does not have the assets to pay the judgment, then filing a lawsuit may not be worth the time, effort, or expense.
Because suing an uninsured or underinsured driver is often fruitless, it is generally advisable to purchase UM/UIM coverage for your auto insurance policy. By doing so, you will have protection against harm caused by uninsured or underinsured drivers.
What to Do If You Are in an Accident with an Uninsured Driver
If a driver is in a collision caused by a driver without insurance, there are several steps that the driver should take to protect himself or herself and maximize the likelihood of a full recovery. Although the injured driver will be seeking recovery from his or her own insurance company, he or she may still face challenges in having the claim approved — which makes it all the more important to be knowledgeable throughout the process.
First, as soon as possible after the accident, an official police report should be requested. While each policy is different, many UM/UIM policies will require an official police report for coverage. A driver should also take notes, get witness names, and record information about the accident scene, if possible; this information may be critical in proving that the uninsured driver was responsible for the accident.
Second, keeping detailed records of all expenses, particularly related to any medical treatments, is important. Having evidence of injuries and treatment is critical evidence that can prove a case for damages to an insurance company.
Third, work with an experienced Philadelphia car accident attorney. Remember that insurance companies are businesses, and their job is to maximize their profits — which generally means trying to pay out as little as possible on claims. A skilled lawyer can advocate for you and help you get the maximum recovery for your damages.
How Much Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Protection Do You Need?
State minimum coverages in New Jersey and Pennsylvania are wholly inadequate, whether your liability-, property damage or UM/UIM. Even a relatively minor accident can exceed these limits. The reality is: You should carry enough UM/UIM coverage to handle the most severe accidents.
Once You Reach Your UM Coverage Limit, You Are On Your Own
Imagine an uninsured driver strikes you, resulting in a totaled vehicle, an ambulance ride, emergency room bills, diagnostic tests, and extended physical therapy. In addition, you suffer significant physical pain that becomes chronic. In addition, you spend months convalescing and lose your income.
While taking strong medication for the pain, you are zonked and unable to function anywhere near your normal level mentally. Family life is diminished because you are disabled, in pain, and zoned out. There is little enjoyment in your life outside of a few entertaining television shows and movies.
If a well-insured driver caused this injury, a personal injury lawyer would jump at the chance to take this case. Likely, there are hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages by the time you calculate the economic, social, physical, and psychological impacts of such a dire circumstance.
But if the driver had no insurance, then, unless this was a crazy rich person who decided to flout the law and endanger his fortune, no reason exists to file a lawsuit. In the end, it would come to nothing.
Judgment Proof Defendants
While you can theoretically sue anyone, no personal injury attorney can afford to take a case against a judgment-proof plaintiff. Judgment-proof plaintiffs have no insurance and no significant assets. Since no cash register sits at the back of the courthouse dispensing just compensation, the winner of a lawsuit must collect from the defendant. If the uninsured person has significant property, such as a home, then it could be possible to force them to make at least a partial payment.
But virtually all homeowners and people with other assets carry auto insurance.
Theoretically, you could win an order garnishing the wages of the defendant, but the amount you collect is likely to be very low, if anything.
People with high incomes carry auto insurance.
But even if you did win such an order, the bankruptcy code allows the discharge of most personal injury judgments.
According to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, personal injury judgments resulting from accidents are dischargeable. However, the law disallows the discharge of personal injury judgments resulting from intentional, malicious action. For instance, a person who committed a vicious assault cannot wipe out a debt for that crime in bankruptcy.
Also, drunk and drugged drivers cannot discharge debts related to injuries caused by these crimes.
But most often, the debtor can discharge the debt, so they are judgment-proof.
This means that the maximum you can collect is the limit of your UM protection.
How Much Is Enough?
This question usually entails evaluating your overall auto insurance limits. Most insurance companies gear the UM coverage around your policy limits. As a result, you may be leaving a big hole in your UM/UIM coverage if you carry minimum or skimpy limits.
Many drivers carry 100/300 bodily injury insurance, plus property damage coverage. A 100/300 policy covers medical costs of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident.
This should be considered a minimal level. Because exceeding $100,000 in medical and other losses per person and $300,000 per accident occurs routinely on Pennsylvania and New Jersey roads, this amount still leaves a large potential gap.
Will Carrying Additional UM/UIM Coverage Be Too Costly?
Not carrying enough UM/UIM protection is too costly.
Most of the expense of UM/UIM relates to the first $15,000 of coverage because the largest number of accidents have costs in that range. As you take more coverage, the amount of protection you receive per premium dollar increases exponentially. You get better value along with peace of mind.
How Does UIM Differ from UM?
Underinsured motorist protection fills the gap between the opposite party’s insurance limits and your expenses. For instance, suppose another motorist struck your vehicle and caused $100,000 in damage, but his insurance covers only $50,000. In that case, your UIM protection kicks in to cover the difference, up to your coverage limit.
How Can You Avoid Being Underinsured?
In addition to being hit by an underinsured driver, you could also be at risk of being an underinsured driver. Being underinsured does not mean carrying state minimum or low coverage. It can happen even to well-insured people who have the misfortune of being involved in a severe crash.
You can mitigate this risk by carrying an umbrella policy. Umbrella policies take effect when a claim against a specific policy exceeds the limits. For instance, if your auto insurance maxed out at $300,000, but the claim is for $350,000, the umbrella policy covers the $50,000 difference.
Work with a Seasoned Philadelphia Car Accident Attorney
Being in a car accident can be scary. If the driver who hit you doesn’t have insurance, that fear may be multiplied by the stress of thinking that your damages may not be covered. Having an experienced attorney by your side can help you recover what you deserve through your UM/UIM coverage so that you can focus on what is truly important: getting better.
At Mattiacci Law, LLC, we have a track record of success in helping our clients recover in UM/UIM cases. We have in-depth knowledge of Pennsylvania and New Jersey law and have decades of combined experience in representing people who have been hurt in all types of accidents. Contact us today at 215-914-6919 (Philadelphia office) or 856-219-2481 (New Jersey office), or email us to schedule a free initial consultation.
Related Content: Make Sure You Have Valid UM/Uim Waivers Before Foregoing a Claim