January 17, 2009
By Bob Coleman
Coleman, Chambers, Rogers & Williams, LLP
I was struck by a hit-and-run driver. I have more than $25,000 in medical bills so far, and about $50,000 in uninsured motorist coverage. Can I still recover from my insurance if I have no idea who hit me?
Fortunately yes. This is the exact kind of scenario that uninsured motorist coverage (UM) is designed to protect. You were slammed by another driver and now the medical bills are rolling up. Meanwhile, the person responsible for those bills is nowhere to be found. However, because this is a hit-and-run situation, there are some important additional steps you must take to recover your UM policy.
First of all, I'm assuming you reported this accident to the authorities as soon as possible, preferably within minutes from the accident and while still at the scene. Georgia law requires you to notify law enforcement "immediately and through quickest means of communication possible," to inform them you were hit by an unknown driver. Don't sit around and think about it - call it in. This is very important, because the longer you wait to report the accident, the more skeptical the insurance company is going to be this was actually a hit-and-run. Just as importantly, you will also need to notify your UM carrier about the accident. Typically, UM policies require additional procedures and tighter deadlines for hit-and-run situations. You may be required to give a statement under oath this was caused by another driver, and they may require additional documentation of your accident.
OK, I called the accident in and notified my insurance company. What's next?
Next, you have to show "due diligence" in finding the driver who hit you. What's expected of you obviously depends on how much information you already know about the accident and the other driver. If you have no idea who hit you - the color of the car, type of car, tag, state, etc., there's obviously not much you can do. However, if you know who hit you, but simply can't locate or contact them, you and your attorney need to try to find them. You can check tag numbers with the DMV, contact local law enforcement, call employers, neighbors, etc. The key is to show due diligence in trying to find this person. Georgia courts have denied claims because juries found the person simply did not try hard enough to locate the driver responsible.
Finally, if you've made every effort to find this person and have had no luck, it's time to bring a claim against the UM carrier. Georgia law requires a specific procedure for recovering UM when the responsible driver is unknown or can't be found. This is called a "John Doe" action. Because this person can not be found, you obviously can't serve them with the required court documents notifying them of your intent to bring a claim. So the law allows your attorney to serve them through publication, typically a notice in the newspaper. Once this is done, your attorney has to file a complaint in court against "John Doe," and ask the judge or jury to award you one dollar. This is called a "nominal judgment." Once your dollar is recovered, the unknown driver is out of the picture and your attorney can proceed against your UM carrier. Note that most UM carriers will not pay out unless this nominal judgment is obtained.
As you can see, hit-and-run situations and accidents where the other driver can't be found are special circumstances that require special attention.