Lessons from Litigation: What is Enough Insurance?
I had just been out of law school for less than a year and had passed bar only a few months before, when I worked on a case that changed the way I viewed the world. I had become a lawyer to help people, and to use my training and skills to get justice for people.
There are two main areas of law for trial lawyers: civil and criminal. Through the criminal courts people are facing criminal charges, fines, jail time and sometimes worse punishments. The civil courts are about non-criminal matters. Lawsuits over automobile collisions happen in the civil courts, and there–justice is money.
The case I was working on was awful. It was one of those rare cases where the criminal and the civil cross paths. It was an auto collision I would never forget.
It took place on one of those two lane country highways where people drive fast and are out in the middle of nowhere. A mother and her three daughters were going down the road in their Chevy Tahoe, when they were cut-off by a young person driving a truck. In order to avoid a collision, the mother swerved, but at freeway speeds, over-correction can result in disaster. The Tahoe hit the gravel on the side of the road, went sideways and began to roll.
I remember sitting and listening to one of the daughters, who was about 10 years-old, explain how she saw her mother’s neck break in the collision. She saw her younger sister slip out of the side window, and when it was done she remembered trying to rouse her mother’s dead body. We all cried. Fortunately, the children were all physically okay, with minor injuries, bumps and bruises. I am not sure how they recovered mentally and emotionally after such a horrific event and loss.
It turned out that the driver that cut them off had no insurance. He was charged with reckless driving and vehicular manslaughter. He had no money, nor did he have any assets. There was no money for the family to go after from the driver, who killed their mother and wife.
Now the family had their own automobile insurance policy. It was the minimum policy limits that Washington State allows–$25,000 of Underinsured Motorist Protection. That means that this poor family could use their insurance policy to obtain some relief for the medical bills that came pouring in for the care given for the injured children.
It was not enough, however, to address the rest of the family losses. You see, it took both the mother and the father to make their mortgage payment and put food on the table. With the loss of his wife’s income and no real insurance money to obtain, they had to sell the family home and move out. It was a tragedy compounded and those children’s lives and their father lost more than could have ever have imagined.
Over the years I have seen people forced into medical bankruptcy over an automobile collision, who did not have Personal Injury Protection. I have seen people left destitute because they did not want to pay for Underinsured Motorist Coverage. I have seen people left with a wrecked car because they only had liability and did not want to pay for comprehensive coverage. I argued with my own insurance agent about paying for “safety glass” coverage that pays to replace broken windshields. After the third windshield to take a rock, I thanked him for arguing for the coverage as in the end, it had saved me a tremendous headache.
If you make a mistake and you do not have sufficient coverage and you injured someone else, under the Washington Responsibility Law, you can be held accountable for paying for all the expenses that the insurance company had to pay to their insured for everything. What does not mean? You will lose the privilege to drive unless you are paying regularly – sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands. And if you fail to pay, your driver’s license is suspended and a judgment entered that will destroy your credit.
Now, having a large insurance policy is no guarantee that it will pay when you need it to. I spend my days fighting insurance companies that don’t want to pay. They make a lot of money denying claims. But, it is better to have something to go after or fight for nothing.
I have heard people complain about paying for insurance so that someone else can benefit. Why should they waste their money? Then, after a tragedy strikes, the reality sets in with the infamous phrase, “I should have….” The coverage is not just to benefit someone else, because in the end it can save our health, our lives, our homes, our families and our communities.