January 17, 2009
By Bob Coleman
Coleman, Chambers, Rogers & Williams, LLP
I was hit by a driver and so far I already have more than $10,000 in medical bills after surgery. It was the other person's fault but apparently he is totally uninsured. Luckily I carry Uninsured Motorist Coverage up to $25,000, which I plan on using but I'm told I'll need an attorney. This struck me as odd. It's my insurance, so why do I need an attorney?
It seems counterintuitive, but in most situations you are required to bring a claim against your own uninsured motorist carrier (UM).
Like most states, Georgia law requires you to sue the UM carrier the same as you would the person who hit you. You become the plaintiff and the insurance carrier becomes the defendant. Once you bring this lawsuit, you are on course to proceed through a very complicated legal process that, if taken to the end, will land you in a courtroom in front of a jury. Now, you don't have to get an attorney to take anyone to court, but I highly, highly recommend you find representation anytime you are involved in the court system. As a law professor of mine used to say, "he who represents himself has a fool for a client." So from the moment you involve a UM carrier in your case, you need to treat it just like your bringing a lawsuit against a defendant. Just initiating such a lawsuit is a complicated matter that requires an attorney's expertise.
So why does the law require me to pursue my own insurance carrier?
That's a more complicated question. The short answer is that uninsured motorist insurance doesn't act like your insurance, even though you pay for it through your premiums every month. You may want to think of your UM policy as this hypothetical pot of money that may be there for you if another driver hits you but can't pay. If you're ever hit and the other driver has little or no insurance, you can bring a claim against the UM carrier to acquire some or all of the money in the pot. So really, the UM carrier takes the place of the defendant in your case. A common way of saying this is that the insurance carrier "steps into the shoes" of the defendant.
At this point it becomes an adversarial relationship - you versus the defendant UM carrier. The carrier defends the lawsuit with a team of experienced attorneys trying to pay as little as possible, or not at all. You should also be represented by an experienced attorney who knows your rights and can assist you through the process. Lawmakers felt this type of system, where both parties have legal representation protecting their rights, would encourage negotiations and ensure the fairest results in most cases.