By Ben F. Windham
The Georgia legislature has codified minimum requirements for motor vehicle liability insurance policies under O.C.G.A. § 33-7-11. Any automobile liability policy in this state must have not less than $25,000.00 dollars because of bodily injury to or death of one person in any one incident or $50,000.00 dollars because of bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in any one occurrence. In current economic times, $25,000.00 dollars is nowhere near enough insurance coverage for someone who is seriously injured in an automobile collision. Even minor collisions alone result in hospital visits for diagnostic testing and can result in more than $25,000.00 dollars in medical bills. This is not to mention that many injuries will put people out of work for some time, causing them to have a claim for lost wages.
It is very important due to the minimum required policy limits in this state that people have what is referred to as “uninsured” or sometimes “underinsured” motorist protection on their automobile insurance policy. While it is true that one should carry uninsured motorist protection, it is these types of policies that are the most unfair to insureds in the State of Georgia.
Until 2009, the dirty little secret of the insurance industry was that even if you paid for $25,000.00 dollars in uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, you were only entitled to tap into that $25,000.00 dollars if the person that caused the collision in which you were injured had less than $25,000.00 dollars insurance coverage. In other words, if the person that hit you had $50,000.00 in insurance coverage and you had $25,000.00 in uninsured/underinsured insurance coverage, you would not be allowed to any portion of your $25,000.00 policy. This would be true even if your damages were in the many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Finally, in 2009 the Georgia General Assembly, over and against the wishes of the powerful insurance lobby, decided to let the cat out of the bag and fix this dirty little secret. The new statute would read that everyone was entitled to their entire uninsured/underinsured motorist protection limits so long as their damages called for it. The insurance industry refers to this right to tap into your own insurance coverage as “add on uninsured motorist protection.” The new statute still allows insurance companies to wiggle out of honoring uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage so long as they have the insured execute an “opt-out” or “rejection” of the right to utilize the entire amount of the uninsured motorist protection limits.
Another dirty little secret of the automobile insurance industry in the State of Georgia is that when you make a claim into your uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, your insurance company hires lawyers to represent the person that caused the accident that hurt you and will try to defeat your claim to any of your own insurance. If your insurance company defends the person that caused your injuries in bad faith and you ultimately recover the entire amount of your uninsured/underinsured insurance limits, the penalties that await your insurance company are merely a slap on the wrist.
The dirty little secret the insurance lobby in Georgia doesn’t want you to know, is if your own insurance company doesn’t act “like a good neighbor” and “do the right thing” and drags you through two years of litigation, then no matter what a jury awards you, you can only potentially recover a bad faith penalty of 25% of the limits of your uninsured/underinsured motorist protection and attorney’s fees. Oh, but don’t fret, should you get to that point and finally have a jury award you the limits of your uninsured/underinsured motorist protection, your insurance company will not stand up and “do the right thing” and pay the penalty. They will instead, fight and defend the second lawsuit that you must bring against the insurance company directly in order to prove they were acting in “bad faith.”
Another dirty little secret (there are so many) of uninsured automobile insurance in Georgia is that most folks don’t realize that you cannot say the word insurance or indirectly refer to the concept of insurance in any way at a personal injury trial seeking insurance proceeds. Instead, the insurance lobby has guaranteed a system through the Georgia legislature that allows insurance defense lawyers to defend their case in part by hoping that people on your jury will assume that you are suing the person that caused your injuries individually, creating guilt that should they award what is just and right they could financially ruin the person that was negligent.
This is also true when you are seeking payment of your uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance limits after you have already settled with the person that caused your injuries. In other words, your own insurance company that refuses to pay your claim or any portion of your uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance limits, files an answer as the attorneys for the person that hit you and can choose to never reveal their identity and can prevent you from ever revealing to the jury that you are only seeking payment of your insurance that you paid for.
I hope this opens your eyes to many of the pitfalls that face Georgia consumers in making a claim for their own automobile insurance.
Ben F. Windham is a trial lawyer that specializes in representing Georgia individuals and families in catastrophic injury claims.
The personal injury attorneys and criminal defense lawyers at Ben F. Windham, P.C. serve clients throughout the greater Atlanta area, including Locust Grove with an array of law services. For more information, visit http://www.windhamlaw.com.