Each year more than 300 people die on Georgia roadways in drunk driving accidents. While prosecutors can file criminal charges against the drunk driver, that does not compensate victims and their families for their losses. Unfortunately, in many cases the drunk driver either has no insurance or lacks sufficient coverage to fully compensate the victims.
This is where uninsured and underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage can come into play. Under Georgia law, all auto insurance providers must offer UM/UIM coverage as part of their standard policies. The customer has the option to decline such coverage, but must do so in writing. While you are free to purchase any amount of UM/UIM insurance that an insurer offers, state law sets minimum coverage at $25,000 for bodily injury per person (or $50,000 per accident). In many cases, it is a good idea to purchase significantly more coverage, as the damages from an accident can easily exceed $50,000, especially if there is serious injury or death.
Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance Company v. Musgrove
It is important to carefully review your existing insurance policies to understand the extent of your UM/UIM coverage. Unnecessary confusion may lead to conflicting interpretations and ultimately litigation. While Georgia courts often resolve ambiguities in insurance in favor of the policyholder, that is not always the case.
Consider this recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals. This case arose from the tragic circumstances of a 2014 car accident in Bartow County. The victims, a married couple in their 50s, were traveling down I-75 when they were hit by a drunk driver. “Upon impact,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, “the couple’s vehicle went down an embankment and stopped in a tree line,” killing them both. The driver was later charged with two counts of first-degree vehicular homicide, illegal possession of marijuana and an open container of alcohol, and numerous other traffic offenses.
The victims’ children subsequently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the drunk driver. They simultaneously served their parents’ UM/UIM carrier. There was no dispute the victims had such coverage. But there was a disagreement as to whether there were one or two policies in effect at the time of their deaths.
The couple owned five vehicles, all of which were insured by the defendant. According to the defendant, its internal computer system only permitted four vehicles to be listed under a single policy number. So when a policyholder insured more than four vehicles, it assigned a second policy number, even though only one policy was issued.
In this case, the defendant paid out the maximum UI/UIM benefits for a single policy–a total of $500,000. The children maintained that the two policy numbers represented separate policies, each of which provided UI/UIM coverage. Although a trial judge agreed with this interpretation and granted summary judgment to the children, the Court of Appeals reversed in favor of the insurer. The appeals court said the policy declaration issued by the defendant unambiguously stated all five vehicles were under a single UM/UIM endorsement.