An article published a few days ago in The Oregonian offers a good opportunity for us to examine the problems with Oregon’s systems for dealing with uninsured and underinsured motorists.
The newspaper reports that “a 29-year-old driver who lost control of his car and hit several parked vehicles, causing traumatic injuries to one of his passengers” fled the scene of the accident on foot and was arrested several days later. The accident took place on 92ndAvenue near the intersection with Powell Boulevard in Southeast Portland. The newspaper quotes police saying a 34-year-old woman was hospitalized with life threatening injuries after the incident. The woman’s fiancé was also injured.
The driver “is accused of two counts of felony failure to perform duties of a driver to injured persons” according to The Oregonian. We do not know for certain, but the driver’s decision to flee strongly implies that he was either uninsured or underinsured. As most readers of this blog are probably aware, Oregon and Washington both require every driver to purchase insurance with a minimum of $25,000 in liability coverage. Those insurance policies almost always provide coverage against being hit by an uninsured and underinsured motorist for the same $25,000.
The problem is that in today’s health care environment $25,000 may not go very far, especially if there are multiple serious injuries and multiple injured parties. Even drivers who meet the legally-required insurance levels may have not nearly enough coverage to pay their victims’ medical bills. And that is even before any claims for lost wages, emotional distress or other forms of harm or loss are considered.
It is important to understand that someone injured by an uninsured or underinsured motorist does have other avenues available to them. As the Oregon Bar Association explains (see link below): “If you cause an accident and you are uninsured, then you can be personally sued for money damages by any injured person. If they receive a judgement against you for money damages, and you do not pay the fine within 60 days, your license can be suspended until the judgement is paid.” It goes on to note that the injured party who has received the judgement can also ask the court “that money be taken from your bank account or your paychecks” in order to cover the debt. Courts can also order the seizure and sale of a person’s assets.
As a Portland car accident attorney practicing in both Oregon and Washington these are issues I see frequently. The facts noted by the Bar Association are especially important to keep in mind because they offer ways for an injured party to receive his or her settlement even if the irresponsible driver is in prison or unable to pay. This can offer hope for people hurt in an accident, but the longer-term issue is a public policy one: with health care costing so much here in the United States we need to reconsider whether $25,000 is really an adequate baseline for coverage. Perhaps this is an issue the legislature can consider in the months ahead. More immediately, everyone should review their auto insurance policy and make sure they have enough uninsured/underinsured coverage to help them should they be the victim of a crash where the at-fault party was either breaking the law by driving uninsured, or has only the minimum coverage that Oregon or Washington require. It is my strong recommendation to my clients that they carry limits of 100/300K at the very least so that they do not have to depend on another driver being adequately insured.
ORS 742.502: Uninsured motorist coverage
Oregon State Bar: Uninsured and Underinsured Drivers