Liability Claims to Recover Losses
Legal claims against a driver that causes a crash, i.e., the “at-fault driver”, are usually negligence claims. At its most basic, a negligence claim exists when (1) a person owes an obligation to do or not do something; (2) the person fails to comply with the obligation; and (3) that failure causes another person to suffer an injury.
All drivers in Washington owe an obligation to all other people to drive prudently and exercise reasonable care for the safety of other people using the roads. This includes obligations to follow traffic laws. When a driver fails to use reasonable care and causes a crash, the accident victim is entitled to recover for any injuries the other driver caused.
Third-Party Claims. The at-fault driver is the crash victim’s primary source of financial recovery. Therefore, with few exceptions—such as unidentified hit-and-run drivers—a victim’s claim will always include, though not necessarily be limited to, a claim against the at-fault driver.
All drivers in Washington are required to carry liability insurance. This is insurance that exists to compensate people the driver injures in a crash. By statute, the driver’s liability insurance policy must have limits high enough to pay benefits of up to $25,000 in damages per any single injured person. RCW 46.29.090. However, the statute also only requires that a liability insurance policy have limits high enough to pay benefits of up to $50,000 in damages per any single crash. RCW 46.29.090. Of course, drivers may—and should—carry liability insurance with higher limits.
If the at-fault driver carries the required liability insurance, the victim will file a claim with the at-fault driver’s insurance carrier. This is a third-party insurance claim. The insurance company will ultimately pay the damages a crash victim can prove they are entitled to recover, up to the insurance limits. The amount of damages is determined through a mutual settlement the parties reach before a victim files a lawsuit against the at-fault driver, a mutual settlement the parties reach after a victim files a lawsuit, or through a verdict against the at-fault driver at trial. To the extent the at-fault driver does not have insurance or insurance with high enough limits to cover all the damages, the at-fault driver is personally responsible for paying the remaining damages.
Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist (UIM) Claims. At-fault drivers often either fail to carry their mandatory liability insurance or fail to carry insurance with sufficient limits. In such cases, UIM insurance exists to cover some of the remaining unpaid damages.
When a person purchases a liability insurance policy, Washington law requires that the insurer also offer the person, for an additional fee, UIM insurance as add-on coverage. RCW 48.22.030. A person is not required to carry UIM insurance. However, the person must reject the insurance in writing if they do not want it included in their insurance policy and bill.
Unlike liability insurance, which a person buys to compensate drivers the person may injure in a crash, a person buys UIM insurance to protect themselves when they are the crash victim. UIM insurance will pay damages, up to the insurance policy coverage limits, that an uninsured driver, a driver with insufficient insurance limits, a hit-and-run driver, or “phantom” driver is required, but does not have sufficient insurance, to pay.
Because UIM coverage exists to act as an additional layer of liability insurance when the at-fault driver did not have sufficient insurance, the victim’s UIM insurer is said to “step into the shoes” of the at-fault driver. However, not only does that mean the UIM insurer must pay damages the at-fault driver was required to pay, but it also means the UIM insurer is entitled to defend against paying its insured damages, as if it were the at-fault driver. Thus, a person with UIM insurance will often find themselves in hostile litigation against their own insured.
Ultimately, like a claim against the at-fault driver, the amount a UIM insurer must pay its insured is determined through settlement or verdict at trial.