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Leaving No Stone Unturned; Understanding the Often-Elusive Insurance Benefit of Uninsured Motorist Coverage

Leaving No Stone Unturned; Understanding the Often-Elusive Insurance Benefit of Uninsured Motorist Coverage

Leaving No Stone Unturned; Understanding

the Often-Elusive Insurance Benefit of Uninsured Motorist Coverage

By: Matthew M. Thomas of Graves Thomas Injury Law Group – October, 2019.

Life altering injuries are a potential reality for all of us. They can happen instantaneously and without warning. Tens of thousands of people die each year in motor vehicle accidents across the country. This includes Florida, who sees its fair share. Beyond those resulting in a death, greater numbers of drivers suffer from non-fatal injuries on a daily basis. Hopefully, this never happens to us or anyone we know. Hopefully, we make it back home safely to our families, each and every day. Unfortunately, this is not our reality.

When someone is permanently injured in a car accident, their own life and oftentimes the lives of those closest to them, are changed drastically. Issues – such as financial pressures from mounting medical bills or an inability to work can prove to be overwhelming. Ideally, the individuals who negligently cause such accidents and any resulting injuries, will have sufficient bodily injury liability coverage under their insurance policy to fully compensate the injured victims. 

But what if they do not? Well, in the sunshine state, chances are they will not. According to research, Florida ranks first in the percentage of uninsured drivers on public roadways, with approximately 26% of the state’s drivers doing so without any bodily injury liability insurance whatsoever. That, is where uninsured motorist coverage (synonymous with underinsured motorist coverage) comes in. In collecting this insurance coverage, it is critical to understand it and explore all its potential applications. This article is a cursory attempt at doing so. 

Uninsured motorist insurance coverage, often referred to “UM” coverage is a creature of statute and contract. Florida’s UM statute, Section 627.727, Florida Statutes, was initially passed in 1961, and while it has seen its share of changes over the years, its intent remains. The statute was enacted to protect individuals who are legally entitled to recover damages caused by owners and operators of uninsured or underinsured vehicles. To illustrate, suppose the driver of vehicle 1 is at fault for an automobile accident that resulted in the driver of vehicle 2 sustaining bodily injuries. If Driver 1 does not have sufficient bodily injury liability coverage to fully compensate Driver 2 for their injuries and damages, then Driver 2’s UM coverage would provide insurance coverage to compensate Driver 2 for his or her injuries. Chiefly, to qualify as an uninsured motorist under Florida Statute §627.727, the value of Driver 2’s injuries must exceed the bodily injury liability limits afforded to Driver 1. Think of it like a tiered insurance system. Once the damages of Driver 2 exceed the bodily injury liability limits available under Driver 1’s insurance policy, Driver 2’s UM coverage picks up the tab.

The statute’s purpose is to protect persons who are injured on public roadways due to other motorists who cannot make the injured party whole again with sufficient bodily injury liability insurance coverage. Section 627.727 was neither “designed” to protect the motorists that injure and damage others, nor to compensate or benefit insurance companies. Indeed, the protections  afforded by the statute are not susceptible to the attempts of insurers to limit or negate that protection. The statute’s “design” includes separating out causes of action for UM coverage under theories sounding in breach of contract made against insurers; as opposed to causes of action that are sounded in general negligence and made directly against at-fault drivers themselves.  Once a cause of action is filed, courts give effect to the legislative intent in application of the statute to the specific facts presented in any given case. This results in an ample supply of court cases and opinions outlining various applications of UM coverage in different factual scenarios, which is beyond the scope of this article. 

Because Florida’s legislature understood the importance of UM coverage to the state’s general welfare, Florida law requires all automobile policies with bodily injury liability coverage to have equal UM limits. An exception – or escape – from this requirement exists when an insured has made a knowing reduction or rejection of UM coverage. Most commonly, insurers achieve this by having an insured sign a valid UM rejection form that is compliant with the requirements of Section 627.727. Only one signature of a named insured is required to bind the policy to the selection of UM coverage. A valid UM form that is signed by an insured, creates a “conclusive presumption” of a knowing rejection or reduction of UM coverage which then applies to the policy for all insureds. Yet, this conclusive presumption is not always so conclusive. This conclusive presumption can be overcome by evidence of fraud, trickery, or forgery of the insured’s signature on the UM form.

Without a valid UM form signed by an insured, there is no conclusive presumption and an insurer must undertake the task of proving that an insured made a knowing and informed selection of UM coverage through other methods. This includes offering proof that an insured “orally” rejected UM coverage. Perhaps unfairly, insureds must their demands for UM coverage in writing to claim entitlement. Obviously, the factual disputes that can arise in the absence of a signed and valid UM form create uncertainty, with results in more costs, more time and more litigation.  

Although UM compliance may appear simple in concept, fact disputes still commonly arise over the validity and statutory compliance of UM forms. For instance, whether an UM form satisfies the formatting requirements for “electronically delivered documents” or is considered “readable language” is dependent on the specific UM form in question. Those wishing to invalidate an UM form should use strict application of the requirements found within Section 627.727. Even the slightest deviation from the language provided in the statute renders any given UM form potentially invalid.

Beyond the issues of an UM selection/rejection form’s contents, are issues surrounding the insurer’s compliance with Section 627.727’s notice requirements. If an insurer is unable to prove proper notice was accomplished per the statute’s requirements, then the insurer has a renewed responsibility to offer UM coverage equal to the bodily injury liability limits under the policy. That is – when a signed and valid UM form rejecting or reducing coverage exists, and the insurer has sent the required notices to the insured, the insured is bound to the original election of the rejection or reduction of UM coverage. Alternatively, when an insurer fails to send an insured the required annual notice, insurers are required to provide full UM coverage (equal to the bodily injury liability limits under the policy) regardless of the insured’s initial election of UM coverage.

Needless to say, a smooth navigation of all the potential UM coverage issues can prove difficult – if not downright impossible. All those involved in actual disputes of UM coverage are bound to encounter some of them. Importantly, the ultimate consequences associated with litigating these issues is potentially devastating for insureds and insurers alike. On one hand, an insurer may be required to extend UM coverage in the amounts of 6 or 7 figures, to equal bodily injury liability limits, even though no premiums were ever paid by an insured. On the other hand, injury victims may be potentially left out in the proverbial “cold” with absolutely zero sources of recovery.

Given the uncertainties found in the realm of UM coverage, it is imperative to enter into these disputes with a full understanding of the potential pitfalls and an organized plan of attack. This topic’s vast body of law allows the insurance industry, who are repeat players in the litigation of insurance disputes, to craft their arguments in favor of themselves and against UM coverage. It also allows technicalities to become mountains made of molehills. Being able to practice in this realm effectively, means being proficient in its terms and their application.  If sufficiently qualified to do so, an individual can use the statutes governing UM coverage and the court opinions interpreting them as pivotal tools in obtaining the full amount of insurance coverage available. As the great military general Sun Tzu once wrote, “the enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead.”

 

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group Hosts Lion King Movie Night

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group Hosts Lion King Movie Night

On Friday July 19th, Graves Thomas Injury Law Group hosted treasure coast law enforcement, veterans and emergency service providers and their families for opening night of “The Lion King”, complete with a complimentary movie themed tumbler and popcorn. Over 220 people were able to fill the theater at the Majestic 11 in downtown Vero Beach and watch the live action remake of a 90’s Disney classic.

“We simply wished to thank an incredible cornerstone of our community for their tireless service,” said Attorney Joe Graves. “Anything our firm can do to resource, support and thank community, we are eager to do.” Graves Thomas Injury Group proudly sponsored a red carpet and photographer to complete the evening honoring the people who put their life on the line to protect our community.

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group Sponsors Women’s Concealed Cary Course

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group Sponsors Women’s Concealed Cary Course

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group believes in empowering women to protect themselves and their family in a time of need.  On May 28th, 2019 we decided to give back to the women in our community by sponsoring 15 ladies to attend a concealed weapons course located at a local shooting range.

We worked with IRCSO, US Law Shield and Gorilla Ammunition to provide Florida’s required course for concealed carry licensing. The ladies learned about legal responsibilities, the principal parts of a pistol, safe firearm handling practices and shooting proficiency. Through this course, we provided these 15 women a platform to build upon.  With continued training and education, we know that this group will feel safe and protected.

“The reality is, we live in a world where there are certain times when women are vulnerable. With this course, we hope to equip women with the knowledge to be able to confidently face those times of vulnerability.” – Joseph Graves.

How do I pick a personal injury attorney?

How do I pick a personal injury attorney?

You’re in your car and no fault of your own, you’re in an accident.  Your car is damaged. You don’t feel exactly right. Maybe the airbag has gone off and you’re disoriented.  It’s a nightmare scenario people find themselves in every day. The fear of medical bills, getting your car fixed and what this is all going to cost runs through your mind.  You have seen many billboards, heard radio advertisements, television commercials, etc. from lawyers all proclaiming to have experience and willing to help. How do you know how which one to choose?

As a board certified civil trial lawyer, the Florida Bar allows me to designate myself as an “expert” or a “specialist.”  Why is that significant? Less than 5% of personal injury lawyers are board certified. In order to achieve board certification, you must have practiced a certain amount of time, tried a certain number of cases and pass a written examination.   There is no requirement from the bar regarding the number of cases you try to call yourself a “trial lawyer.” A “trial lawyer” may not have tried a case at all. Some lawyers use trials that they may have been tried by another member of their firm or maybe they had limited responsibility and still advertise they have “won” a trial or achieved a “verdict” in order to bolster their credibility.  Trying cases competently takes a lot of experience and legal expertise. Further, not all lawyers try cases and that is an important issue to discuss with your prospective attorney.

Similarly, lawyers advertise themselves as specializing in certain areas such as “motorcycle accidents” or “trucking accidents.”  The bar does not regulate such a distinction. In other words, a lawyer may have never tried or handled such an accident and still designate themselves misleading consumers to believe they have experience with these types of cases.  At Graves Thomas, we have successfully litigated motorcycle accidents, trucking accidents, premises liability accidents, automobile accidents, negligent security cases, injuries to children, brain injuries, spinal injuries and other complicated legal matters.  In handling these types of cases, experience matters and we are more than happy to show our prospective clients that we have experience in all these types of cases, including trials.

Taking a case into litigation is quite costly for a law firm. There are associated costs in filing the lawsuit, conducting discovery, depositions and experts, if needed. It is important to understand what the firm’s resources are in taking a case to trial.  At Graves Thomas, we have small firm customer service but big firm resources. Simply put, there is not a case too big for us to handle. The insurance companies cannot outspend us. We have the resources necessary to win your case and get you the money you deserve.

Oftentimes, I see lawyers that have designations or accolades from various organizations.  Many of the organizations will designate you in some way as a “top lawyer” or something similar without having any background.  I am constantly bombarded with emails asking me to pay a fee for some crafty or catchy designation. They are meaningless but are used by some lawyers to make it appear that they have achieved something that they actually have not. Oftentimes, these organizations will so designate a lawyer for the payment of a fee.  Traditionally, lawyers have used Martindale as a reliable source. Martindale judges lawyers by asking their peers and Judges they practice before how they rate the lawyer. I have achieved Martindale’s highest rating of “AV” and have so held it for over 15 years. I display these plaques proudly in my office knowing that my peers and the Judges I practice before respect my legal expertise.

In today’s digital advertising, lawyers advertise from distant areas and appear as though they may be located in your town.  Ask them where there primary office is located. Many lawyers advertise multiple offices, but no one is there to meet you or tend to your individual needs. Further, it is difficult to aggressively litigate your case when your attorney is not local.  An attorney having local ties has a distinct advantage in familiarity with the Judge and the Judge’s procedures. Also, juries are sometimes suspicious of “out of town” lawyers.

Finally, ask your lawyer who will be handling your case.  Will the firm be referring your case to another firm? What is the experience of the lawyer actually handling my case? These questions are important because aggressive and competent representation is necessary for an optimal result. Insurance companies know who is experienced and who is not.  They know who tries cases and who does not. The lack of experience may detrimentally affect your settlement. Also, cases should be moved through the system as quickly as possible and not left to sit around. Aggressive representation includes providing a timely demand and litigating the case if necessary.  At Graves Thomas, our reputation is well known. We work hard for our clients and are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve the best result possible for our clients.

A guiding principle at our firm is that we treat our clients like family.  No matter how big or small your case may be, we will treat you just like we would our own sister, brother, Mom or Dad.
If you want aggressive experienced representation in your injury case, give us a call.

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group Talks Trucking Accidents

Graves Thomas Injury Law Group Talks Trucking Accidents

Accidents involving commercial vehicles can be catastrophic and handled by an attorney that has experience in handling these claims.  It is important to secure as much evidence as quickly as possible. Most trucking companies have adjusters and sometimes accident reconstruction experts report to the scene so they can immediately begin their defense.  It is important that the victim have representation so that this information can be secured for the victims as well.

Evidence such as photographs of property damage, downloading control models and other evidence may not be available later.  It can be very difficult to obtain this evidence later if it is not immediately secured. There are also many federal rules and laws that must be complied with by drivers. An attorney representing a victim of a trucking accident needs aggressive and zealous representation that is familiar with these laws.

Our firm has handles many trucking accident cases with catastrophic injuries resulting in millions of dollars in awards. Trucking cases can be complex and costly. At Graves Thomas we have the experienced aggressive trial lawyers and large firm financial resources to litigate any case all the way through trial. 

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