Understanding the Role of "Uninsured Motorist" Benefits in Personal Injury Lawsuits

Piecing together the events of an automobile accident can be difficult. Especially in “hit and run” cases where the other driver speeds away, a victim may have insufficient or incomplete information to act upon. How can this affect the victim's legal rights to seek compensation for his or her injuries? A recent decision by a Queens Supreme Court judge deals with one such scenario.

Fletcher v. Rodriguez

This case revolves around a 2011 accident at a busy intersection in Queens with a vehicle that quickly sped away from the scene. The victim, an experienced law enforcement officer, caught the vehicle's license plate number. The victim later sued the owner of the vehicle whose plate number matched. The defendant subsequently denied any involvement in the accident.

Meanwhile, the plaintiff approached her own insurance company about the possibility of collecting uninsured motorist benefits. New York law requires all drivers to have uninsured motorist coverage as part of their automobile insurance policy. As the name suggests, “uninsured motorist” coverage provides benefits to a driver injured in an accident with another driver who is at fault but lacks sufficient insurance of his or her own. Here, the victim's insurance policy offered up to $25,000 in uninsured motorist benefits, which is the minimum coverage required for a single-victim accident in New York.

Because the victim was still contemplating legal action against the defendant, she made a deal with her insurance company. It agreed to pay her the $25,000 policy maximum for uninsured motorist benefits, provided she return that money if she later sued and successfully recovered damages from the defendant.

When the plaintiff finally sued, the defendant claimed her agreement with the insurance company constituted a legal waiver of her right to bring further legal action. The defendant relied on a old legal rule known as the “election of remedies.” This means that a successful party in a lawsuit can only choose one method of recovery. For example, if the defendant stole your car, you could either ask for your car back or the cash equivalent, but not both. Here, the defendant argued the plaintiff “chose” to remedy her injury by seeking uninsured motorist benefits, thereby waiving her right to also seek damages against the defendant.

Queens Supreme Court Justice David Elliot rejected the defendant's argument. In a February 2nd opinion, Judge Elliot said election of remedies did not apply to this type of situation. The plaintiff did not choose a remedy; rather, she entered into a conditional settlement with her insurer. If she ultimately recovers from the defendant, she must give back the uninsured motorist benefits. The election of remedies defense only applies where a plaintiff has made an “irrevocable” choice, Judge Elliot said.

Protecting Your Legal Interests

The defendant in the case above tried to argue that the victim was being dishonest with the court. But, as the judge properly recognized, the victim lacked “full knowledge of the facts surrounding her accident,” because the defendant denied any involvement. As long as this dispute remains, the victim did the right thing in seeking conditional benefits under her uninsured motorist policy. It would have been irresponsible for her to do otherwise.

Cases like this illustrate the importance of seeking legal assistance whenever you have been involved in an accident. An experienced New York accident attorney can help protect your rights and help you seek the truth about your accident. Contact our office today if you would like to speak with an attorney right away.