Uninsured motorist (UM) coverage can be critical in allowing a victim of a car accident to recover damages following an injury. Because of the significant number of uninsured drivers on the road, we advise clients to purchase as much UM coverage as they can reasonably afford. Perhaps just as importantly, uninsured motorist insurance can also provide additional compensation when another driver is underinsured, since the Georgia automobile liability minimums of $25,000 per person (and $50,000 per accident) are often insufficient to fully compensate a victim of an auto accident.
It is important to understand the limitations of uninsured motorist insurance, however. This type of insurance is governed by a Georgia statute, Official Code of Georgia, Annotated (O.C.G.A.) § 33-7-11. Among other things, this code section defines what is an "uninsured motor vehicle." Before a victim can make a UM claim, it must be shown that the damages were caused by an uninsured motor vehicle meeting that definition.
In Hazelwood v. Auto Owners Insurance, Georgia Court of Appeals Case no. A17A1596 (March 5, 2018), the court found that although the vehicle injuring the plaintiff was underinsured, it did not meet the statutory definition and therefore the victim could not recover under his own uninsured motorist policy. The case involved an atypical manner of injury - the owner of the vehicle was inflating a tire, which blew off the wheel, injuring the plaintiff. The vehicle itself, however, while owned by another party (the owner of the plaintiff's employer) and was regularly driven by the plaintiff as part of his job.
Because the plaintiff's damages allegedly exceeded the amount of liability insurance on the vehicle, it could be deemed underinsured, which means it is uninsured to the extent the plaintiff's damages exceed the available automobile liability insurance. The relevant part of the definition of uninsured motor vehicle, under O.C.G.A. § 33-7-11(b)(1)(D), states that Uninsured motor vehicle "means a motor vehicle, other than a motor vehicle owned by or furnished for the regular use of the named insured..." Although other requirements are included in the statute defining uninsured motor vehicle, this was the portion at issue in this case. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals ruled that because the plaintiff regularly drove the vehicle (in connection with his employment), it was furnished for his regular use, and therefore even under the plaintiff's personal policy, uninsured motorist coverage was unavailable.
UM coverage can be complicated to understand due to the complex statute and the cases interpreting it. An experienced Georgia personal injury lawyer can assist with navigating the pitfalls of making a claim for uninsured motorist benefits, including the notice and other time limitations required. Unfortunately, in some cases, failure to give the UM insurer notice of an accident within a short period of time can be fatal to a claim that would otherwise have resulted in an increased recovery for injuries sustained in an auto accident. Therefore, it is important to understand the contractual and statutory requirements of Georgia law to ensure that valid claims are not waived.