DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question on your mind? If so, please email me. Your name will remain confidential. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship.
Dear Debra: I was involved in a car accident but the person who ran the stop sign has no insurance. I called my insurance company and they said that in essence I have no options because I am not covered under my policy. Can this be true?
Signed: Dinged Driver
I can’t tell you how many times a client has told me they have “full coverage”, but then discover that they are barely covered at all. I am so glad you asked this question because it gives me the chance to explain the basics of automobile insurance coverage. Yes, it is a dry subject, but hang with me to the end of this column, dear readers, because what I am about to tell you may make the difference between whether you will be right side up or upside down if you are involved in a car wreck.
Below is a snapshot of the types of coverage in a typical automobile insurance policy, all of which are listed in your Declaration Page of your automobile insurance contract:
1. Liability coverage: Under California law, drivers must have a minimum of 15/30 for liability coverage in order to meet the financial responsibility laws (CA Insur Code sec. 11580.1b). The driver who hit you broke this law. The 15/30 limit means that the insurance company is only obligated to pay up to $15,000 per person, and $30,000 per accident to the individuals who were injured (comes into play if more than one person is injured). Not a lot of coverage in today’s world. So, that it why it is important to understand the “optional” coverages that are described next.
2. Comprehensive coverage: This coverage insures you against damages that
may occur to your car that do not involve traffic accidents, such as theft-related damage or a tree falling on your parked car (yes, it has happened, especially in West County).
3. Collision coverage: This insures you against damages to your car that occur as
a result of a traffic collision such as an accident with another driver. Also ask your agent or broker if they can sell you a “Deductible Waiver”, meaning that if your car is damaged in a traffic accident, then you need not pay your deductible.
4. Medical and funeral services coverage: Also called “med pay” by us insurance geeks who love the profession. Med pay is very handy if you are hurt in a car accident and you wish to be treated by a health care professional who may not be covered by your health insurance (for example, an acupuncturist, chiropractor, massage therapist, etc.). Typically, you can purchase med pay up to $25,000, but a lower limit ($5,000 or $10,000) may also do.
5. Uninsured/Underinsured motorist coverage: (UM/UIM coverage). If you remember nothing else, do make sure that you have UM/UIM coverage. Based on my observations as a personal injury lawyer, I would estimate that 15% of California drivers have no car insurance. So, if an uninsured motorist hits you, your UM coverage will take care of your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering up to your policy limit. Now, if the driver has only the minimum limits (15/30) and your damages are over this $15,000 limit, your Underinsured Motorist Coverage may kick in.
Indeed, if you do not have UM/UIM coverage, then your only option is to sue the uninsured driver who hit you. Your options are indeed limited. For the rest of you, take out your Declaration Page and try to understand what you have (and more importantly, don’t have). Call and talk to your insurance agent. For those readers who don’t have an insurance agent/broker, my top two picks for insurance brokers are Sheila Harden at George Petersen Insurance Agency (707-360-4136) or Jan Loewen at Sherzer Insurance Agency (707-528-8483). Protect yourself. Be smart and take a moment to understand.
Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 33 years. She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email(firstname.lastname@example.org), phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).