Our clients in a recent auto accident case were trying to help a friend when a horrific crash nearly cost them their lives and their life savings.
Many, if not most, of the auto injury cases we deal with involve difficult issues of Virginia insurance law that could not be resolved without years of personal injury law experience. Serious injuries from auto and truck crashes that result in hospitalization will quickly rack up tens of thousands in medical bills, and long-term injuries can incur costs in the millions. For most victims these extensive care costs can only be paid off by insurance claims, but often the main coverage involved is inadequate. Fortunately, Virginia law covering uninsured or underinsured motorists sets up a number of options to allow for the recovery of these expenses and a skilled personal injury lawyer can help victims maximize their benefits under the law. A recent Burnett & Williams case illustrates how complicated things can get.
Our clients, “Mary” and “Elizabeth” were helping their friend “Dennis” and several others with a move from Virginia to New Jersey. Dennis’ cousins rented a U-Haul van and his friend “Greg” rented a car from Avis, but then decided to ride with the cousins in the U-Haul. Dennis took over driving the rental car to New Jersey — even though he wasn’t on the rental contract — and our clients Mary and Elizabeth jumped in with him.
With Dennis driving and our clients, Mary and Elizabeth, riding along in the rental car, the group made it safely to New Jersey, but in the early morning on their return trip, tragedy struck. Dennis got lost in Maryland and stopped to ask a stranger for directions. The stranger suggested that Dennis follow him to a place where he could get back on track. When it was time for their paths to diverge, Dennis turned his attention from the road to give a “thank you” wave.
Not realizing there was a sharp curve in front of him, and traveling at highway speed, Dennis lost control of the car and slid across a grassy median. The car spun violently, struck a road sign, and then become airborne before slamming into a concrete barrier. The car was launched over another exit ramp before hitting a guardrail, striking an embankment, and coming to rest on its roof in the middle of the road.
During the horrific accident, Mary, who was unrestrained, was ejected from the vehicle. Elizabeth struck her head and was knocked unconscious. Surprisingly, Dennis escaped with minor injuries. A combination of state troopers, fire and rescue workers, and Medivac helicopters, responded to the scene of the crash.
Both of our clients were airlifted to a trauma hospital. Elizabeth regained consciousness and had severe pain in her neck, head, shoulder and left knee. She sustained an abrasion to the right side of her forehead, and bruising and conjunctiva in the right eye. A CT scan revealed injuries to her lungs and brain: a small upper lobe pulmonary contusion and, more seriously, a subarachnoid hemorrhage and subdural hematoma in the brain. Elizabeth was hospitalized for 4 days. Meanwhile, Mary was also severely injured and airlifted to the same trauma hospital. Radiographs revealed a right rib fracture and left femur fracture, which was surgically repaired with pins and screws. Mary was hospitalized for 8 days.
Elizabeth incurred nearly $50,000 in medical expenses, while Mary incurred nearly $90,000.
Dennis’ negligence — failing to maintain control of his vehicle –obviously caused the accident, but, who was liable for the costs incurred by accident? Avis? Dennis? Our first attempt was with Avis, who denied liability because Greg said that he did not authorize Dennis to drive the rental car.
Our second attempt to find coverage was through Dennis’ insurance policy. Dennis had a driver’s license but did not own a car, and therefore did not have automobile insurance. The only source of recovery for our clients was from their individual Uninsured Motorist (UIM) policies. Elizabeth had a $25,000/$50,000 policy with State Farm, which means $25,000 per individual, $50,000 per accident. Elizabeth’s $50,000 medical expenses were double what was available in coverage, so other sources of recovery had to be explored.
The solution was found in Virginia Code §38.2-2206 which provides that an individual can be insured under the underinsured motorist coverage other family members living in the same household. Those policies can be combined and the total coverage is determined by adding the underinsured motorist coverage amounts from each policy. This process is called “stacking.” Because Elizabeth resided with her brother at the time of the accident and he was insured on a separate State Farm policy with $25,000 in UIM coverage, she was able to stack his $25,000 policy on top of hers, resulting in a total of $50,000 in available coverage.
Mary faced a different scenario with a similar solution. Mary did not have a driver’s license or a car, so she did not have her own auto insurance policy. At the time of the accident, she lived with her father and sister, who were insured on separate State Farm policies. Both policies carried the minimal limits of $25,000. Fortunately for Mary, those coverages were also eligible to be stacked for her benefit, resulting in a total of $50,000 in coverage towards her $90,000 bill. Burnett & Williams attorneys engaged in negotiations with the medical providers and we were able to get agreements to lower them enough that Mary’s medical bills were paid and she received some of the proceeds as compensation for her ordeal. We were also able to negotiate a similar outcome in Elizabeth’s case.
In many auto accident cases, a person with minimal injuries can negotiate a fair settlement on their own. In larger truck accidents and major auto crashes, it will typically pay to have an experienced attorney in the accident victim’s corner. Sometimes, as in the case of stacking the underinsured motorist coverage under multiple policies, the law provides remedies that are not easily intuited by the average person. Other times, key details in the case might provide a new avenue to help the victims. In this case we were able to apply the relevant law to help our clients resolve these complex issues, but it is worth noting that for drivers and passengers, it is important to be aware of the available coverages before getting on the road, and be smart about rental coverage. Especially in the case of Uninsured Motorist Coverage and car rentals , we always recommend going much higher than the minimums on your insurance policy.