Underinsured Motorist Coverage (UIM)—Auto Insurance That Protects You

Imagine you are stopped at a stoplight on your way to work. Wham—you are struck from behind. Your car is totaled. You hurt everywhere and are unable to think straight. Police respond and you are rushed to the hospital on a backboard in an ambulance.

After several hours and a multitude of X-rays, MRI, and other tests, you are sent home with medication and told to follow up with your own doctor. You miss a few weeks of work recuperating and spend the next eight months going to medical physical therapy and massage therapy appointments. The inconvenience of having to take time to go to all these medical appointments is minuscule compared to the mountain of bills you receive.

Who pays for your ambulance ride, ER bill, doctors’ bills, physical therapy bills, massage bills, and lost wages? Well, if the at-fault driver is underinsured or uninsured, you will need to rely on your health insurance or personal financial resources to cover your losses. That means you will be paying out of your own pocket.

While drivers in Washington are required to purchase “liability coverage” in order to lawfully drive, the required coverage is minimal. RCW 46.30.020 mandates that all drivers in Washington purchase “liability coverage” with limits of at least $25,000 per person, and $50,000 per occurrence.

These days $25,000 does not go very far.  A routine trip to the emergency room (ER) can easily exceed $10,000. In addition, liability insurance provides coverage for you if you are at fault, but does not provide any insurance coverage for you in the event you are injured when the other driver is at fault.

Worse, not everyone follows the law. According to an Insurance Research Council (IRC) report, nearly 13% of motorists—which works out to about one in eight drivers—were uninsured in 2014. In Washington, the number of uninsured drivers is higher than the national average. Approximately 17.4% of drivers are uninsured in Washington. That works out to approximately one in six drivers are uninsured.

Uninsured motorist coverage (UM) or underinsured motorist coverage (UIM) are insurance coverages designed to protect you in situations where the other driver is underinsured or uninsured. UM/UIM insurance coverage is unusual since it pays damages to you the insured rather than to a third party. In other words, UM/UIM insurance is insurance that directly benefits you.

UM/UIM insurance covers sums the insured is legally entitled to recover as damages from the owner or operator of an uninsured vehicle. That is, it covers damages the responsible party (or his or her insurer) would have paid had he or she purchased auto liability insurance or adequate insurance coverage.

The importance of this insurance is underscored by RCW 48.22.030, which requires that Washington Insurers offer UM/UIM coverage to Washington insureds with the same limits as their liability insurance limits. If you purchase a liability policy with $25,000 per person/$50,000 per occurrence limits in Washington, then your insurer must offer you a UM/UIM policy with the exact same limits.

While insurance companies are required to offer Washington insureds UM/UIM insurance, you can refuse to purchase UM/UIM coverage, or choose to purchase an amount less than your liability coverage limits. However, in order to do so, Washington law requires your insurance company to obtain a written waiver of coverage from you attesting to the fact you were offered UM/UIM insurance and you either decline the insurance or decided to purchase less UM/UIM coverage. See RCW 48.22.030(4). This is important because if the insurance company fails to obtain a waiver, you may be entitled to UM/UIM coverage.

UM/UIM insurance is very important insurance coverage. Unlike the compulsory liability coverage you are required to purchase, UM/UIM coverage is insurance coverage that directly benefits you. We advise all of our clients to purchase UM/UIM insurance in the amount of their liability policy limits. In addition, one of the first things we do for our clients if they do not have UM/UIM coverage is to ensure that their insurance company has followed Washington law and obtained a written waiver from their insured.

If you or a loved one has questions about personal injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident, call the trial attorneys at Maxwell Graham at 206-527-2000.