Uninsured motorist coverage can be a critically important insurance coverage for Georgia drivers in cases where the at-fault driver is uninsured, underinsured, or leaves the scene and cannot be found. Unfortunately, sometimes injured victims with uninsured motorist insurance cannot use their policy because of a failure to comply with the policy terms. A recent decision of the Georgia Court of Appeal illustrates this point.
In Silva v. Liberty Mutual, the Court of Appeals affirmed a Gwinnett County State Court judge's decision ruling that a more than 4-and-a-half-year delay in notifying the uninsured motorist insurer, Liberty Mutual, was unreasonable and that as a result the insurer was not obligated to provide coverage, despite the undisputed fact that it the relevant insurance policy was in effect at the time of the wreck.
The claimant, a passenger in someone else's car at the time of the wreck, settled her claim with the at-fault driver through that driver's automobile liability insurer, Allstate Insurance Company. That driver's insurance limits were $50,000 per person, but only approximately $37,000 in coverage remained due to payments to others. After settling with Allstate, the injured victim tried to seek additional compensation from Liberty Mutual as uninsured motorist insurer.
Under Georgia law, any person riding as a passenger will generally be covered by the vehicle's uninsured motorist insurance, regardless of whether the claimant is listed on the policy. Although apparently not relevant to this case, a claimant who has uninsured motorist coverage, either on their own car or because a resident relative in their household has such coverage on a car, is covered by the insurance even when a passenger in someone else's car.
However, Georgia permits insurers to place certain conditions on coverage, and one of those conditions is notification to the insurer of the accident. Importantly, this is generally a notice of the wreck itself, and not notice of the intent to seek a claim, and therefore a claimant or plaintiff may not be excused from notice just because they do not intend to make a claim at the time of the wreck.
In Silva, the Liberty Mutual insurance policy stated that "We must be notified promptly of how, when and where the accident or loss happened." Interpreting this provision, the Georgia Court of Appeals found that the years-long delay was not reasonable, and therefore rejected the claimant's appeal. It specifically rejected the argument that the claimant was not aware that the uninsured motorist insurance would be required until after learning, years later, that the Allstate liability insurance had been diminished by other claims.
The bottom line is that an uninsured motorist insurance company should be notified as soon as possible, and in compliance with the policy terms, of an auto accident. Occasionally, courts will excuse shorter delays if the claimant can provide a reasonable basis, but the bulks of the appellate decisions are unforgiving and depend partially on the specific insurance policy language involved. It is also important to properly identify any possible uninsured motorist insurance policies that may be applicable, since a claimant's failure to realize that there is coverage will not generally excuse late notice.