New York requires all auto insurance companies to offer uninsured motorist (UM) coverage to its customers. This means if you are in an accident with an uninsured vehicle—or an insured vehicle where the insurer disclaims or denies coverage—your insurer must pay. Insurance companies must also offer customers the option of purchasing underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage, which applies when you are in an accident with a vehicle whose insurance does not cover the full amount of your injuries. Additionally, customers may purchase supplemental underinsurance motorist coverage (SUM), which can protect the insured and other family members.
One limit on UM coverage is that it does not apply to police vehicles. The New York Court of Appeals heard a pair of cases in 1988 where New York City police officers claimed UM benefits on their personal insurance policies after their police vehicles were hit by uninsured vehicles. The City did not provide coverage in such cases, and the Court of Appeals ultimately held the state law requiring UM insurance for “motor vehicles” excluded police vehicles.
Despite this decision, the Court of Appeals recently revisited this issue. In this most recent case, two NYPD officers were in their police vehicle when it was hit by a drunk driver. The drunk driver was underinsured. The officer driving the police vehicle had a personal automobile insurance policy with State Farm that included SUM coverage. The SUM endorsement extended to any person occupying the driver's personal vehicle or “any other motor vehicle” operated by the insured or his spouse.
After receiving the maximum benefit from the drunk driver's insurance policy, the officer who was the passenger in the police car then sought benefits under his partner's SUM coverage. State Farm denied the claim, arguing a police vehicle was no more covered by an SUM endorsement than traditional UM coverage. The officer sought arbitration, which State Farm moved to stay before the Supreme Court.
While the Supreme Court agreed with State Farm a police vehicle was not covered by the SUM endorsement, the Appellate Division, Second Department, disagreed, holding the Court of Appeals' 1988 decision did not apply to the facts of the case. When it comes to SUM coverage, the Second Department said the term “motor vehicle” could include a police car.
State Farm appealed, and on July 1, the Court of Appeals, by a vote of 4-3, reversed the Second Department, siding with State Farm and the Supreme Court. The majority held there was no “material distinction” between the UM coverage at issue in the 1988 cases and the SUM coverage in this situation. The dissent argued to the contrary, the officer here was claiming benefits under his partner's private insurance policy, rather than from the city as was the case in 1988. And even given the 1988 decision, the dissent argued neither the Court of Appeals nor the legislature ever intended to deprive plaintiffs like the officer here of the ability to recover any UM or SUM benefits.
Fighting for UM and SUM Benefits
While the police vehicle exclusion is exceptional, these cases do highlight the importance of uninsured and underinsured motorist benefits. For many accident victims, these may be the only benefits they can recover as compensation for their injuries. That is why if you have been in an accident, it is important you work with an experienced New York personal injury attorney who can assist you in dealing with insurance companies. Contact our offices today if you need to speak with an attorney right away.