Q: What is uninsured motorists (UM) coverage and how does it work?
A: If you are injured in a car accident by an uninsured at-fault driver, UM coverage takes the place of the liability coverage the driver should have had. Instead of making a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance company, you make a claim with your own insurance company under your UM coverage. UM coverage pays for things like accident-related medical expenses, wage loss, and pain and suffering, but does not cover damage to your vehicle. You can purchase uninsured motorist property damage (UMPD) coverage, but if you have collision coverage on your vehicle, UMPD is probably not necessary.
Q: If Ohio law requires all drivers to have car insurance, why should I consider buying UM coverage?
A: Ohio law requires all drivers to have proof of financial responsibility to pay for injuries or damages to others if they are responsible for causing an accident. To meet this requirement, most drivers buy car insurance that includes liability coverage. Unfortunately, some drivers disobey this law. A 2011 Insurance Research Council study estimates that one in seven drivers may be driving without car insurance. Ohio State Highway Patrol statistics from 2010 reveal that more than 8,700 accidents in Ohio were caused by uninsured drivers. If you are in an accident, there is a real chance that the other driver may not have insurance. Even if the accident is not your fault, you may end up paying for accident-related costs, including medical expenses, out of your own pocket.
Q: Am I required to buy UM coverage?
A: No. UM coverage is optional.
Q: If I don’t buy UM coverage, do I have any recourse against the at-fault driver?
A: You could try to collect accident-related damages directly from the at-fault driver, but if they refuse to pay, you may have to file a lawsuit. If the court agrees that the other driver was at fault, a judgment would be entered against that driver for the amount of your damages. Lawsuits can be expensive and take a long time. Also, many uninsured drivers do not have the financial ability to pay, so even with a judgment in your favor you may not recover any money.
Q: If I buy UM coverage, does this mean that the at-fault driver gets away with not having to pay anything for my injuries?
A: Not necessarily. If your insurance company makes a payment to you from your UM coverage, the company has the right to be reimbursed for the money they paid from the personal assets of the at-fault driver. This is why you should not try to “settle” your claim directly with the at-fault driver without your insurance company’s permission. Doing so may jeopardize the company’s right to recover and may mean that your UM coverage benefits will be denied.
Q: Who is covered by a UM policy?
A: UM covers you, and in many cases, your family members injured by an uninsured vehicle, even if they are not in your vehicle when the injury occurs (if, for example, you or a family member is injured by an uninsured driver while crossing the street on foot). “Family member” means anyone related to you who lives in your home, including those related by marriage and adopted children. Family members who own and insure their own cars generally are not covered on your UM policy. Similarly, your passengers may be covered while riding in your vehicle, or they may have UM coverage with their own insurance companies.
Q: How much UM coverage do I need?
A: Most people buy UM coverage in the same amount as their liability coverage. For example, if you have liability limits of $12,500 per person and $25,000 per accident, your UM limits would also be $12,500 per person and $25,000 per accident. You cannot buy a higher limit of UM coverage to protect yourself than you buy in liability coverage to protect others. Consider your own risk and financial situation and buy the amount of coverage that meets your needs.
Q: Might I be held responsible for injuries to the uninsured person who caused the accident?
This "Law You Can Use" column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by attorney Deborah Kenney of The Motorists Group in Columbus.
A: In Ohio, you are responsible for injuries to another person if you are at-fault for the accident. If, however, the uninsured driver is more than 50 percent at-fault for the accident, you are not responsible for the driver’s injuries. If you are equally at fault, you would be responsible for paying 50 percent of the uninsured driver’s damages. If there are innocent passengers in the uninsured vehicle, and you played a role in causing the accident, you would be responsible for paying your share of their injury claims.