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Georgia Appeals Court Clarifies Insurer’s “Uninsured Motorist” Liability in Multi-Defendant Accident Case

Multi-vehicle accidents can pose complex questions regarding liability and insurance. The Georgia Court of Appeals recently addressed such a case. The appeals court rejected a trial court’s decision to summarily rule in favor of an insurance company that argued it should not have to provide “underinsured motorist” benefits to a policyholder.

Wade v. Allstate Fire and Casualty Company

The plaintiff in this case was injured in a multi-vehicle accident. The plaintiff initially sued five defendants–three other drivers involved in the accident, the employer of one of those drivers, and the parent of another driver. Three of the five defendants settled for a total of $30,000, an amount less than the maximum limits on their respective insurance policies. The other two defendants settled for an amount equal to their policy limits.

The plaintiff also served his insurer, Allstate, to recover uninsured motorist benefits under his policy. In this context, “uninsured” actually means and underinsured motor vehicle involved in an accident with the policyholder. The policy said uninsured motorist benefits are not available “until after the limits of liability for all liability protection in effect and applicable at the time of the accident have been exhausted by payment of judgments or settlements.” In insurance-speak, this means that if you get into an accident with another vehicle, you can’t claim uninsured motorist benefits until after the other driver’s insurance company has paid out the maximum available under that policy.

So let’s say you suffered $50,000 worth of damages in an accident. The other driver’s insurance policy has a liability limit of $30,000. Your uninsured motorist benefits would then cover the remaining $20,000. If, however, you settled with the other driver for $15,000–less than his policy limit–your insurer would owe you nothing.

But what about a case where more than one defendant is involved? In this case, Allstate said the plaintiff’s decision to settle with some of the defendants from less than the full limit of their policies negated any claim to uninsured motorist benefits. The trial court agreed with this reasoning and ruled Allstate owed the plaintiff nothing for uninsured motorist benefits. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

While there was no dispute, the appeals court found, that the plaintiff could not claim uninsured motorist benefits with respect to the the three defendants he settled with for less than the limit of their policies, he might still have a claim with respect to the other two defendants. Remember, two defendants settled for the limits on their policies. If the trial court ultimately determines their share of the damages exceeds that limit, then Allstate is still on the hook for uninsured motorist benefits.

In any personal injury case where there’s more than one defendant, the trial court must not only determine the total amount of damages owed a successful plaintiff; it must also “apportion” the damages among each defendant, in effect assessing a share of the blame for the accident. The trial court had yet to do that here, and the appeals court said it was therefore premature to hold Allstate had no liability.