What happens if I am in an accident and the vehicle whose driver was at fault is either uninsured or left the scene of the accident?
Answer: This is a great question. Unfortunately, it happens—more commonly that the person who hurt you has no liability insurance than that he or she left the scene of the accident. However, the latter happens too.
First off, if the at fault motorist leaves the scene, call 911. That is a crime, the level of which depends on the degree of harm caused (none, property damage or bodily injury). It is illegal to leave the scene of an accident where any property damage or bodily injury was caused. Therefore, calling 911 is the first thing you should do, then try to get the fleeing motorist’s license plate before he flees. Here is a peak at how Pennsylvania criminal law views this intentional tort (civil wrong):
§ 3744. Duty to give information and render aid.
(a) General rule.–The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to or death of any person or damage to any vehicle or other property which is driven or attended by any person shall give his name, address and the registration number of the vehicle he is driving, and shall upon request exhibit his driver’s license and information relating to financial responsibility to any person injured in the accident or to the driver or occupant of or person attending any vehicle or other property damaged in the accident and shall give the information and upon request exhibit the license and information relating to financial responsibility to any police officer at the scene of the accident or who is investigating the accident and shall render to any person injured in the accident reasonable assistance, including the making of arrangements for the carrying of the injured person to a physician, surgeon or hospital for medical or surgical treatment if it is apparent that treatment is necessary or if requested by the injured person.
The above statute focuses on the duty to render aid, under the old common law idea that he who negligently causes harm to another person has a duty to help the victim, since he put the victim in peril. The law views causing property damage very differently than causing bodily (personal) injury to someone. For example,
§ 3742. Accidents involving death or personal injury.
(a) General rule.–The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury or death of any person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident or as close thereto as possible but shall then forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of the accident until he has fulfilled the requirements of section 3744 (relating to duty to give information and render aid). Every stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary.
(1) Except as otherwise provided in this section, any person violating this section commits a misdemeanor of the first degree.
(2) If the victim suffers serious bodily injury, any person violating subsection (a) commits a felony of the third degree, and the sentencing court shall order the person to serve a minimum term of imprisonment of not less than 90 days and a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000, notwithstanding any other provision of law.
So, the penalty for causing a minor injury and leaving the scene is a first degree misdemeanor. However, the penalty for causing major injury and leaving the scene is a third degree felony– with a mandatory minimum of 90 days in jail. These laws are separate from the duty to render aid, which also applies. The penalty for causing ONLY property damage is a third degree misdemeanor, as follows:
§ 3743. Accidents involving damage to attended vehicle or property.
(a) General rule.–The driver of any vehicle involved in an accident resulting only in damage to a vehicle or other property which is driven or attended by any person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident or as close thereto as possible but shall forthwith return to and in every event shall remain at the scene of the accident until he has fulfilled the requirements of section 3744 (relating to duty to give information and render aid). Every stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary.
(b) Penalty.–Any person violating this section commits a misdemeanor of the third degree, punishable by a fine of $2,500 or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both.
(July 6, 1995, P.L.288, No.42, eff. 60 days)
So as you can see, Pennsylvania takes not helping someone you hurt seriously, and leaving the scene even more seriously. These are criminal matters. Now let’s talk about the civil side (where we come in).
Uninsured motorist coverage was mandatory in Pennsylvania for a long time. Then, it all changed, in July of 1990. As part of “Act 6,” Underinsured and Uninsured motorist benefits became OPTIONAL. The insurance industry won the battle of “cost containment.” It did not have to offer these loss leader coverages, these coverages which cost them too much money. So, PA drivers were offered the option of electing to REJECT both Uninsured and Underinsured motorist coverage. This had to be done in a very specific way. Sometimes, but not often, we can win a case by showing the insurance company did not use the proper forms or did not put the proper language on the forms. Thus, our client has UM and UIM coverage equal to his or her liability coverage limits. But the moral of the story is, yes, it is perfectly legal to drive a hundred thousand miles a year and NOT have a nickel of Uninsured or Underinsured motorist coverage, since July of 1990.
Uninsured motorist coverage is called UM or SS coverage under some policies, and Underinsured motorist coverage is called UIM or WW coverage under some policies.
We think this is a terrible idea to REJECT either one, because nothing protects your OWN family more than UM and UIM coverage, which are bodily injury coverages intended to benefit only you and your family members. The UM coverage protects you if the person who hurt you or your family members living with you drove around with zero financial responsibility, had no automobile liability insurance (whether he fled the scene or not). You need this coverage. You can’t trust every driver to be insured.
Secondly, if the driver who hurt you was MINIMALLY insured, say the PA state minimum of $15,000, then he may well be UNDERinsured for the degree of harm he caused you or your family members living with you. That’s when you need UNDERinsured motorist coverage, to protect you in case the person who almost killed you was skating by with the bare minimum of $15,000. Safe Auto and American Independent love to write these kinds of bare bones coverage. They say “let us keep you legal.” Well, $15,000 is almost as bad as having nothing.
That’s why YOU and your family members who live with you most definitely need to have both UN and UNDERinsured motorist coverage. Both are optional. They are sold as a set. That way, you are protected from drivers out there with zero liability insurance. They should lose their license for driving around that way. They will. But that won’t put food on your table. UM coverage will pay you for your bodily injuries (pain and suffering), standing in the place of the totally irresponsible uninsured motorist. If the negligent driver had only $15,000 in liability coverage, then UIM kicks in to the extent your injuries are worth above and beyond $15,000.
Say your injuries are worth $75,000. If you had $50,000 in UIM coverage, you get the full $50,000, because together, your total recovery would have been $68,000, still less than the value of what you suffered. Hopefully, you had $100,000 in UIM coverage, meaning you’re eligible for a total recovery of $115,000—$15,000 from the Underinsured (not uninsured) motorist + $100,000 paid to you for your injuries by your own company. Luckily, PA is not a gap state, unlike NY and NJ. More on that next time. Stay tuned next time, for what is STACKING your UM and UIM coverages and what does GAP coverage mean, for those of you resident in NJ and NY? And no, it has nothing to do with those delicious BK stackers or the GAP jean store.