Understanding Automobile Wreck Cases

1. What duties do drivers owe to other people on the road?

Answer: Drivers owe other persons upon the roadway a duty to use reasonable and due care in the operation of their vehicles so as to avoid injury to other persons using the roadway. This includes keeping a proper lookout, maintain proper control of the vehicle, turning appropriately, stopping appropriately, and maintaining an appropriate speed. A driver also has a duty to follow state laws and local ordinances in operation of their vehicle. One example of a state law that drivers must follow is that it is illegal to operate a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. 

Common carriers (those that carry passengers for hire, such as buses and taxi cabs) are held to a higher standard of care. They must exercise the highest degree of care for their passengers’ safety.

2. What types of insurance may apply in a car accident case?

Answer: Several different types of insurance coverage apply in a car accident case. First, the at-fault driver’s automobile insurance may apply to cover the damages you sustain in a wreck. In Tennessee, all drivers are required to carry a minimum amount of automobile insurance, specifically $25,000 per person with a cap of $50,000 for each wreck. If two people are injured in a wreck, and the at-fault driver has minimum insurance policy limits, generally speaking the most the insurance company could ever have to pay is $25,000 to each person. If three people are injured in a wreck and the person at fault has minimum limits, the insurance company generally will not have to pay more than $50,000 to all three people combined, and each person cannot recover any more than $25,000. Of course, many drivers break the law and do not carry the required minimum car insurance limits. 

In the driver that causes the accident does not have insurance, your own automobile insurance coverage may also apply in a car accident case. This type of insurance coverage is called uninsured motorist coverage. Subject to certain limitations, you may recover under that portion of your own policy if the other driver is proven to be uninsured.

Similarly, if the other driver has insufficient coverage to pay for your damages and your insurance coverage exceeds the amount of the at-fault driver’s insurance coverage, then you may recover the difference between the at-fault driver’s coverage and your own coverage under your underinsured motorist coverage with your automobile insurance carrier. For example, if the at-fault driver has minimum limits of $25,000 per person and you have limits of $100,000 per person, you may recover an additional $75,000 under your uninsured motorist coverage if your damages are $100,000 or more.  The driver (or the driver’s employer, if they are on the job at the time of the wreck) may be required to personally pay in addition to the available insurance coverage. However, recovering more than the available insurance limits is often unrealistic.

You may also have coverage under your policy for medical care – often called medical payments coverage. This coverage is usually limited, with most people having $5,000 of coverage. The amount of your medical payments coverage depends on your contract with your automobile insurance company. You will most likely be required by your automobile insurance contract to pay your insurer back for any payments made on your behalf if you recover damages from the at-fault driver. This is called subrogation.

You can see that it is very likely that your own insurance company may not be on your side in a wreck in which at the at-fault driver did not have insurance coverage or did not have enough insurance coverage to pay you for your damages and losses. While you have a duty to cooperate with your own insurance company, it makes sense to talk to a lawyer before you give a statement to any insurance company, even your own. At Law Offices of John Day P.C., we will be happy to advise you on how to give an accurate statement to the insurance company representative.

3. What is the deadline to file a claim for a car wreck?

Answer: Subject to very few exceptions, you have one (1) year from the date of the wreck in which to file a lawsuit. Do not assume that any exception applies to you unless a lawyer familiar with all of the facts advises you that the exception applies.

4. Should I get a lawyer? When?

Answer: You should get a lawyer involved immediately after you are involved in an accident. You need a lawyer to protect your rights after a car wreck, and a lawyer will take the stress of dealing with the insurance companies off of you while you are recuperating from your injuries. You should definitely talk to a lawyer before giving a statement of the circumstances of the accident to any insurance company, even your own. 

5. Do I need a lawyer if the insurance company for the other driver is being nice and reasonable?

Answer: In some instances, the insurance company for the other driver will act reasonably in resolving your claim. However, beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Just because the at-fault driver’s insurance company is being nice does not mean they are being reasonable. Until you consult with a lawyer of your choice, it is difficult to understand your many rights in a car wreck case and to assess whether the insurance company is giving you a fair deal.

6. Should I sign a medical records release for the other driver’s insurance company?

Answer: In some instances, you should sign a medical records release for the insurance company. However, that decision is best made after you consult with the lawyer of your choice who can advise you about the ramifications of signing a medical release.

7. Should I give a statement to the other driver’s insurance company?

Answer: In some instances, you should give a statement to the insurance company. However, that decision is best made after you consult with the lawyer of your choice who can advise you about the ramifications of giving a statement to the insurance company. You should not give a statement to an insurance company if you are taking any medication that affects your mental status. 

8. Who will pay for my medical bills?

Answer: The answer to this question depends on the different insurance coverages available for the wreck and who is at fault for the wreck. Your medical insurance carrier should pay your medical bills related to the wreck. If you make a recovery for the wreck from the at-fault driver, you will most likely be required by your health insurance contract and/or by law to pay your insurer back for any payments made on your behalf. This is called subrogation. 

Your own automobile insurance coverage may also pay your medical bills related to the wreck under your medical payments coverage. This coverage is usually limited, with most people having $5,000 of coverage. The amount of your medical payments coverage depends on your contract with your automobile insurance company. Like your health insurer, you will most likely be required by your automobile insurance contract to pay your insurer back for any payments made on your behalf if you recover damages from the at-fault driver – also called subrogation.

9. What if the other driver does not have insurance?

Answer: If the other driver does not have insurance, your own automobile insurance coverage may apply to cover your damages. This coverage is called uninsured motorist coverage. You may recover under that portion of your own policy if the other driver is proven to be uninsured.

Similarly, if the other driver has insufficient coverage but your insurance coverage exceeds the amount of the at-fault driver’s insurance coverage, then you may recover the difference between the at-fault driver’s coverage and your own coverage under your uninsured motorist coverage with your automobile insurance carrier. For example, if the at-fault driver has minimum limits of $25,000 per person and you have limits of $100,000 per person, you may recover an additional $75,000 under your uninsured motorist coverage if you have $100,000 in damages. If the other driver (or the driver’s employer, if they were on the job at the time of the wreck) has significant personal finances, you may be able to recover from them directly.

10. Is there PIP coverage in Tennessee?

Answer: No. Tennessee does not have a no-fault system and therefore does not have PIP (Personal Injury Protection) coverage as a part of automobile or truck liability insurance policies issued in Tennessee. However, if you live in a state that has no-fault and PIP coverage, your insurance policy may give you benefits not available to Tennessee residents. If you are from out-of-state but were injured in a car or truck wreck in Tennessee, the attorneys at Law Offices of John Day P.C. will be happy to review your insurance policy and determine what benefits it provides under the circumstances.

11. Does Tennessee provide for “stacking” of uninsured motorist policies?

Answer: No. If a person owns three vehicles and each vehicle as $25,000 of uninsured motorist protection some states allow the car owner to “stack” each of the insurance policies together to provide for $75,000 in uninsured motorist benefits. That is not true in Tennessee. 

However, if you are an out-of-state resident who is hurt by the carelessness of a driver in Tennessee, your uninsured motorist policy may permit insurance coverage to be “stacked” to give you higher insurance policy limits. The attorneys at Day & Blair will be happy to review your insurance policy and determine what benefits it provides under the circumstances.

12. Does the person who caused the wreck have to pay to fix my car?

Answer: The person who causes the wreck must pay to have the car repaired to about the same condition as it was before the wreck. If the cost of repairs is about the same as or greater than the fair market value of the car the car will be considered “totaled” and you will be entitled to receive money equal to the fair market value of your car.

13. Does the person who caused the wreck have to pay for a rental car while my car is being fixed?

Answer: Legally, no but practically that frequently occurs. Technically, the person who caused the wreck must pay for “loss of use” of your car. That loss is often measured by the cost of renting a replacement vehicle. However, do not go out to a big-name car rental company and rent a replacement car and except the other driver’s insurance company to pay for it. Those companies often have contracts with lesser-known rental companies that charge less for rental cars. So, make sure you have a clear understanding with the other driver’s insurance company about what car you can rent and who will pay for it before you rent a replacement vehicle.   Better yet, let your lawyer help you with this issue. 

Your may also have replacement car coverage on your insurance policy.

14. How much liability insurance coverage should I have on my vehicle?

Answer: The amount of coverage you should have should depend on your assets and on your ability to pay. You must have at least $25,000 per person, $50,000 per accident.   Most people who have a household income over $50,000 per year should have $100,000 per person, $300,000 per accident. If your household income exceeds $100,000 per year, you should have even more insurance, such as $250,000 per person, $500,000 per accident or even more. Ask your agent to quote you the rate on several different liability insurance policy limits – you will be surprised to see how inexpensive the “extra” insurance coverage is.

People who have significant assets should have high liability insurance limits and should also have an “umbrella” or “excess” insurance policy to give them even more protection from if they make a mistake and harm another person. Many wealthy individuals (people with a net worth of over $300,000 or an income of over $150,000 per year have several million dollars worth of liability insurance.

15. How much uninsured motorist / underinsured motorist insurance coverage should I have?

Answer: You cannot buy more uninsured motorist / underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) insurance than you have in liability insurance coverage. Thus, if you have a $100,000 / $300,000 liability policy, you cannot buy more than $100,000 /$300,000 in UM/UIM.

The need for UM/UIM is another reason to buy higher liability insurance limits. There are hundreds of thousands of uninsured drivers in Tennessee, and hundreds of thousands of drivers who have minimum liability insurance policy limits. Many of these drivers are drivers who cannot afford more insurance because they have a past history of driving under the influence of alcohol or another drug, UM/UIM is very inexpensive protection from harm caused by these drivers.

Ask your insurance agent to give you quotes for several different levels of liability insurance coverage, including equal amounts of UM/UIM. You will be surprised at how little the “extra” insurance costs. Many times, you will be able to buy twice as much insurance coverage for a few dollars per week.

16. I was injured in a car wreck. What should I do?

Answer: You should contact a lawyer as soon as possible. It is important that evidence be gathered to determine the validity of the claim. The insurance company for the person or company that caused the death will be working hard to gather that evidence, and you should have a lawyer doing the same.

© 2010 Law Offices of John Day P.C. 

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About John A. Day

I am a fifty-three year old lawyer who is fascinated by the law of torts. I have studied the field for over twenty-nine years. I represent plaintiffs in personal injury and wrongful death cases.

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