The Risks of Choosing to Purchase a Lower Amount of Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Coverage

When you are injured in an accident caused by another driver, you may be entitled to benefits from your own insurer if you have uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM) coverage. Essentially, UM coverage means your insurance company “steps into the shoes” of the negligent driver, who is either an unknown person, lacks insurance altogether, or has coverage that does not fully compensate you for your injuries.

Under Georgia law, an auto insurer must provide UM coverage by default. The insured party is free to reject this coverage in writing. Before 2001, state law only required UM coverage at certain minimum level, although the insured could ask for a higher limit in writing. The General Assembly subsequently amended the UM coverage rules in 2001 and 2008. The 2001 amendment said an insurance company had to offer minimum UM coverage of either $25,000 per person (or $50,000 per accident) or an amount “equal to the liability coverage in the insured’s underlying policy.” In other words, if you purchased more than $25,000/$50,000 in coverage for your regular policy, then by default your insurer would offer you the same amount in UM coverage. If you wished to purchase less in UM coverage, you could do so in writing.

UM coverage under the 2001 rules were known as “reduced by” policies. This meant that the amount of UM coverage you could receive from your insurer was reduced by whatever money you received from the negligent driver’s insurance company. In 2008, the General Assembly amended the law to change the default UM policy from “reduced by” to “added on.” Under this new default, you are entitled to the full amount of UM coverage for any damages that exceed the negligent driver’s policy limits. Again, you can elect to go back to the prior “reduced by” standard, which many drivers do because it has a lower premium.

Cline v. Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance

Of course, if you elect to take a lower amount of UM coverage for whatever reason, you will likely have to live with that choice. A recent decision from the Georgia Court of Appeals, Cline v. Allstate Property and Casualty Insurance, provides a cautionary tale on this point. In this case, a man was injured in a 2016 auto accident. The victim sustained approximately $94,000 in damages as a result of the accident. The negligent driver who caused the accident only had $25,000 in coverage, which the victim accepted in a settlement.

The victim then sought additional benefits from his UM carrier, Allstate. The insurer said the victim “made an affirmative election in the policy, as renewed, to carry UM coverage less than his bodily injury liability limit.” In plain English, the victim decided to purchase only the minimum amount of UM coverage available, which was $25,000. Even combined with the negligent driver’s policy, this would not be enough to fully compensate the victim.

Before the courts, the victim insisted that the 2008 amendment to the UM law “mandated that Allstate provide him default UM coverage in an amount equal to his liability limit,” which was $100,000. The Court of Appeals disagreed. As noted above, the 2008 amendment switched the default for UM policies from “reduced by” to “added on.” It did not affect a policyholder’s election of lower UM coverage. Here, the Allstate policy was issued to the victim’s wife. She elected to purchase only $25,000 in UM coverage, the Court said, and this choice was not affected in any way by the 2008 amendment.

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