Authored by Donald Culkin.
A personal injury case requires three elements – negligence on the part of the defendant, evidence that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries, and sufficient resources to pay the damages caused. The last element – resources to pay damages – usually comes from the defendant’s insurance policy. Until recent changes in the Virginia Code, we often had difficulty determining the amount of the defendant’s coverage. For reasons that were not always obvious, or even sensible, insurance companies refused to disclose their policy limits unless compelled to do so through litigation. One reason the insurance companies preferred to hide their coverage limits was their worry that disclosing the policy limits might create unrealistic expectations on the part of the plaintiff, a position that showed little faith in the judgment of plaintiffs and their attorneys. The insurance companies’ secrecy on this issue was counterproductive because a plaintiff cannot make an intelligent decision about whether to settle before going to court without a full understanding of the case, including a full understanding of the amount of money available to pay whatever verdict the jury returns.
In 2008 Virginia took a step toward fixing this problem by passing a law that requires insurance carriers to disclose policy limits if the claimant can document at least $12,500 in medical bills and lost wages as a result of a motor vehicle accident. The new statute is a significant improvement, but does not help injury victims with significant pain, suffering, and physical disability but less than $12,500 in medical bills and lost wages. The statute also fails to address wrongful death cases where the victim is a child, stay-at-home parent, or anyone else who does not receive a paycheck.
In 2009, Burnett & Williams proposed new legislation that will require disclosure of coverage limits in all wrongful death cases, regardless of the amount of medical bills and lost wages. A member of the Virginia Senate has agreed to introduce and patron the proposed bill in the next legislative session. We have been pleased to work with representatives from the insurance industry to craft the new legislation and are optimistic that it will become law in 2010. We believe this effort will help parties resolve their wrongful death claims and achieve closure for their families.