A Personal Injury Lawyer’s Perspective
Understanding auto insurance coverage can be overwhelming. What do all the terms mean? What coverage do I really need to protect my family and me? What is a gimmick? Who can I trust to explain all this; an insurance salesperson? Let’s take auto insurance a step at a time so we can make sense of it all. I, Richard Cuthbert, am here to help. As a personal injury attorney based in Petersburg, Virginia I work with insurance companies all the time and can help you understand insurance coverage, auto insurance terms, and lingo, as well as the coverage you should have to protect you and your family in the case of an accident. Let’s go over some of these confusing auto insurance topics, such as:
- Auto Insurance Basics: What is auto insurance? What does auto insurance do? What is the benefit of auto insurance? Do I need auto insurance in Virginia?
- Auto Insurance Terms: What do car insurance terms mean?
AUTO INSURANCE EXPLAINED – WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT AUTO INSURANCE
What is auto insurance?
Auto insurance is a contractual agreement between an individual and an auto insurance company to protect you in the event of a vehicle accident.
What is the purpose of car insurance? What happens if you get into a car accident without insurance?
Auto insurance coverage protects you from liability, or having to pay money, if you injure someone else while driving. For example, if you accidentally run a stop sign and cause an accident that injures another person, you are on the hook for the damages and injuries that you caused the other driver. These damages can be in the form of pain and suffering, medical bills, and lost wages. Medical bills can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Without auto insurance coverage, you would be on the hook for the entire amount of the injured person’s damages. However, if you have auto insurance coverage, your insurance will step up and pay those damages up to your policy limits.
Do I need auto insurance in Virginia?
In Virginia, auto insurance coverage is required by law. If you don’t have auto insurance coverage, then the DMV will charge you $500 per year in order to legally drive without insurance coverage. But beware, if you choose this option, not only will you be forced to pay $500, but you will open yourself up to personal responsibility (paying yet more money) if you harm another person while driving on the road, so you should get auto insurance coverage.
AUTO INSURANCE TERMS & DEFINITIONS TO KNOW
“Auto Liability Coverage or Auto Liability Insurance”- This is the auto insurance coverage that is mandatory in Virginia or else you pay the fine. Liability insurance protects you from liability up to a stated dollar amount. Anything over that amount, you are still personally responsible for. Most personal insurance policies in Virginia have liability coverage between $25,000 and $500,000. The more liability coverage you have, the more protection you get, but the more expensive your auto insurance policy becomes.
If you severely injure someone while you’re driving and it is your fault, you will want the largest dollar amount of coverage you can afford.
Auto Liability Coverage Insurance Example: For example: You are in an auto accident and you cause someone $100,000 worth of medical expenses and you only have a $50,000 auto insurance liability policy. You will be personally responsible for all damages above the $50,000 in auto insurance coverage that you have. Yikes!
“Uninsured Motorist Coverage”- Also known as “UM Coverage.” This is coverage that protects you from someone who does not have any insurance or from someone who does not have enough insurance. It also protects you from a hit-and-run where you cannot determine who is responsible for your damages.
Uninsured Motorist Insurance Example: Person “A” hits your car and injures you badly. You spend 3 nights in the hospital and require 8 months of recovery for a shattered leg. Your medical bills total $80,000. You have $100,000 worth of Uninsured Motorist Coverage. The below outlines two scenarios for this example of uninsured motorist coverage.
Scenario #1- Person A has no insurance. In this instance, your UM would provide you coverage up to your Uninsured Motorist Coverage limits ($100,000).
Scenario #2- Person A has a $25,000 policy. In this instance, your uninsured motorists insurance (UM) would provide you coverage up to your coverage limits ($100,000) MINUS Person A’s Minimum Insurance Limits ($25,000). In this case, your uninsured motorist (UM) insurance would pay you up to $75,000 to compensate you for your injuries and damages ($100,000-$25,000).
“Minimum Limits”– The term “Minimum Limits” describes the basic, minimum amount of auto insurance required by Virginia Law in order to operate a motor vehicle without Liability insurance. Here are the basic auto insurance requirements:
- $25,000 in coverage for bodily injury (per person)
- $50,000 in coverage for bodily injury (per accident)
- $25,000 in coverage for property damage
You can see how a Minimum Limits Policy is really “bare bones” coverage. Any serious car accident will typically lead to more than $25,000 in bills and damages. I had a case recently where a driver with Minimum Limits auto coverage drove off the side of the road, hit a tree, and killed his passenger. His passenger had 9 statutory beneficiaries (a wife and 8 children). Each statutory beneficiary had a wrongful death claim against the driver. Needless to say, the Minimum Limits driver was woefully underinsured.
“Full Coverage” Auto Insurance – Do not be fooled! “Full Coverage” is misleading. A Full Coverage policy can also be a Minimum Limits Policy and can leave you without sufficient protection. It is a term used by insurance companies to make you feel good. It indicates that your coverage complies with the basic minimum requirements of Virginia State Law, plus certain fringe coverages such as damage to your own motor vehicle. But there is nothing really “full” about it!
“Collision Insurance”– Collision Insurance pays for property damage to your car. If you opt to have “Collision,” you are buying coverage that will hopefully pay to repair your car if it is damaged. For most old cars, Collision Insurance may not make sense. (I don’t have Collision on my old pickup). This is because the insurance company will not pay you more than your car is worth even if repairing your car costs more than the value of your car. So if you have Collision Insurance, your car is worth $2,500, and the estimate to repair your car is $4,500, Collision Insurance will only pay you $2,500 (the value of your car before the crash) minus any Deductible that you may have.
Even for newer cars, Collision Insurance is often a disappointment. I hear from my clients all the time that the money the insurance company is offering for their car isn’t enough for them to fairly replace what they lost. (I am not recommending against Collision Insurance. I think it is good to have. You just need to know its limitations).
“Deductible”– The term “deductible” is most often associated with health insurance, but the same concept applies to auto insurance too. In the auto insurance world, a deductible applies to your Collision Coverage or damage to your car from other objects such as hail or tree branches. An auto insurance deductible requires you to pay out of your own pocket up to a certain dollar amount before your insurance company will step in to pay toward the remainder of the property damage costs. Typically the higher your deductible, the lower your monthly auto insurance payments will be.
“Medical Payments Coverage”– Medical payments coverage pays you the face value of your medical bills up to your “Med Pay” policy limits regardless of whether or not you were at fault (“No Fault Insurance”). Medical payments coverage is optional coverage, so make sure your policy has it!
For example: You have $5,000 in Med Pay Insurance. You run into a telephone pole and are taken to the hospital. The ER bills are $8,000. You have health insurance that covers your ER bill. You submit the full $8,000 bill, your ER records, and the Police Crash Report to your car insurer and they send you a check for $5,000. It is that simple.
WHAT TYPE OF CAR INSURANCE COVERAGE REALLY MATTERS?
Catastrophic auto accidents happen. The best way to protect yourself and your family in your auto insurance policy is through Liability Insurance and Uninsured Motorist Coverage. These are the coverages that protect you from personal liability for your own negligence (the injured party does not go after your bank account) and cover you for injuries and damages from someone who does not have insurance or does not have enough insurance.
The more assets you have, the more protection you need. For some people, a Minimum Limits Policy will be all you can afford and Minimum Limits coverage is better than nothing. For others, increasing your liability coverage to limit your personal exposure and to protect your personal assets makes sense.
In Southside Virginia, too many motorists drive with minimum limits policies. The only way to protect yourself from others with too little insurance is to make sure you have plenty of Uninsured Motorist Coverage.
Tricky Details With Auto Insurance: There are lots of tricky details and scenarios with auto insurance as well. For example, stacking Med Pay coverage (combining your medical payments coverage by the number of cars you have insured) or trying to calculate whose insurance pays: Is it the owner of the car you occupied or the driver of the car you occupied? What if the driver of the car you occupied did not have insurance but someone in his household did? What constitutes a “household?” These are all good questions and are a bit more complicated than can easily be explained here in this article. If you have any of these questions, please feel free to give me a call and I would be happy to chat with you.
The Bottom Line of Auto Insurance Coverage
Focus on the most important parts of your auto insurance policy: liability coverage, uninsured motorist coverage, and to a lesser extent medical payments coverage.
If you or someone you know has been injured by the fault of another or if you simply have an auto insurance question, call us at (804) 485-2555. We are here to help.