Question: I was involved in a serious auto accident. I was injured pretty bad and have very high medical expenses. I hired a personal injury attorney who tells me that the other driver’s insurance company has a minimum policy of $30,000. The insurance company has agreed to pay their policy limits in exchange for a full release against the other driver. Is there any way to get more than the policy limits?
Robert’s Answer: Technically, you can try to get more money. But as a practical matter, I would say “No.” And here’s why….
Understanding your Personal Injury Claim.
First it is important to understand everyone’s legal standing in a personal injury claim. When you are injured as a result of someone else’s fault, your claim is technically against the person responsible for causing the accident. In the case of a car accident, your case is really against the other driver, not his insurance company. Just picture it as if the other driver did not have insurance. Your claim would be against the other individual driver. From a legal standpoint, it makes no whether or not the driver had insurance.
Now, let’s say the other driver did have insurance. That insurance policy is there to protect the other driver. It is not your insurance. So, when you have a claim against someone else and claim they are responsible for causing the accident, the other driver’s insurance company has a duty to protect the other driver from your claim. They can do that is several ways….
They Can Settle With You.
If the insurance company believes that their driver is at fault, they can protect their driver by choosing to settle with you. They would investigate the accident, review your medical bills, and evaluate your injury. If they believe that their driver has legal exposure, then the insurance company may decide to offer your a settlement.
However, the insurance company is making a settlement offer because they believe it is the best interest of their driver. If you settle, you will have to sign a release of all claims. This will have the effect of exonerating their driver from any further legal exposure from the accident.
They Can Deny Your Claim.
If the insurance company denies your claim or makes an unacceptable settlement offer, then you can pursue your claim by filing a lawsuit against the other driver. Remember, under Texas law your legal claims are against the other driver. Therefore, you cannot sue the other driver’s insurance company directly. You must sue the other driver personally.
When you do, the insurance company will hire an attorney to defend the other driver in your lawsuit. Ironically, the insurance company that you have been dealing with is now hiring an attorney to defend against your claim.
This goes to highlight what I said before: The other driver’s insurance company is there to protect the other driver from your legal claims.
What Does all this Mean to You?
Now that you know the legal standing between you, the other driver, and the other insurance company, we can answer your question.
Let’s assume the other driver had no insurance. If that was the case, then you probably have no chance of collecting any money from the other driver personally. Texas law has very generous exemption rules which protects virtually every middle class person’s assets from judgment collection. Of course, if you continue to push the judgment, the other driver can simply file bankruptcy and get the judgment discharged. Therefore, you probably won’t get a settlement payment and any judgment you get would go unpaid also.
The main benefit you get from the other driver having insurance is that there is a way to get paid on your claim. Whether you enter into a settlement or get a judgment against the other driver, the insurance company has the money to pay.
But every insurance policy has certain monetary limits.
Automobile Insurance Policy Limits.
Under Texas law, every vehicle must carry a minimum amount of liability coverage. This is coverage a person carries on their vehicle to cover any damages or injuries for which you may be legally responsible.
Presently, the minimum coverage required is $30,000 for bodily injuries to any one person; $60,000 for bodily injury claim for any single accident (if there are multiple persons injured); and $25,000 for damages caused to any property.
The Insurance Proceeds are Your Best Chance of Collecting Anything.
So, if we assume that the other driver is probably “judgment proof,” then your best chance of collecting any money would be from the insurance policy.
If your injury claim is potentially worth more than the available policy limits, there is no more to collect from the other driver. You might try to get the other driver to pay the extra money out of his pocket. Of course, that is highly unlikely.
You might get a judgment against him in excess of the policy limits. But, the insurance company would still only be responsible for their policy limits.
You can then try and collect that extra money by enforcing the judgment against the other driver’s non-exempt assets, if any. However, in the end, you are probably going to end up with the policy limits anyway.
Uninsured Motorist and Under-Insured Motorist Coverage.
The most common way of getting more money is to file a claim with your uninsured or under-insured motorist coverage. Uninsured motorist applies if the other driver did not have insurance. Under-insured motorist coverage applies when the other driver’s insurance policy is insufficient to make you whole for your damages.
But be careful! Before you can make a UM/UIM, you must get written permission from your insurance company to release the other driver. If you settle without getting written permission, then you may be precluded from making this claim on your policy.
Get a Good Attorney.
So, as you can see, you can sue anyone for any amount you want. But getting a judgment does not mean you will get paid on that judgment. I also want to stress that this article only touches the surface of the legal strategies in a car accident case. Nothing will substitute for professional legal representation. As a Dallas car accident attorney since 1994, I have had this conversation with many of my injured clients on several occasions. Only by partnering with a qualified attorney will you be assured that your case is being handled properly.