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Uninsured / Underinsured Accident Case Explores UM Coverage Concepts

Angela Terrell was driving her employer’s van when she was injured in a vehicle collision on U.S. Highway 190 in Pointe Coupee Parish on Mach 5th of 2010. Ms. Terrell filed a lawsuit against the other driver and his insurance provider for damages and later amended her lawsuit to also include her employer’s van’s insurance provider, ACE, to force ACE to cover any of her damages that were in excess of the other driver’s insurance policy. In Terrell v. Fontenot the Louisiana Court of Appeals ruled that ACE did not need to cover any excess damages because the van’s policy holder properly rejected the uninsured/underinsured provision of the insurance agreement.

Insurance providers typically offer their customers uninsured or underinsured insurance coverage, also called UM coverage. If an insurance provider provides UM coverage to its client the insurance provider may need to pay for any damages the customer sustained in a vehicle accident if the other driver was both at fault and uninsured or underinsured. UM coverage in an individual’s insurance policy can work as a safeguard against the individual having to pay for his own damages out-of-pocket if an uninsured or underinsured driver causes an accident with the individual.

Louisiana does not require a driver to have UM coverage, but a handful of states do. Because Louisiana does have a strong public policy favoring UM coverage, UM coverage is implied in automobile insurance policies, even if UM coverage is not explicitly listed in the insurance contract. The only time in Louisiana that UM coverage will not be read into an automobile insurance policy is when the customer has clearly and unambiguously rejected the coverage. The insurance provider has the burden of proof to prove that the rejection was sufficiently clear.

The court in Duncan v. U.S.A.A. Ins. Co. established the criteria for properly rejecting UM coverage: (1) initialing the rejection of UM coverage; (2) filling in the amount of coverage selected for each person and accident if the a limit lower than the policy limit is chosen; (3) printing the name of the insured or legal representative; (4) signing the corresponding signature; (5) filling in the policy number; and (6) filling in the date.

Ms. Terrell later amended her suit to also include the van’s insurance provider, ACE, so that if the other driver was later found to be at fault and did not have sufficient cash or insurance to pay all of her damages then ACE, through its UM coverage, would become liable for any remaining damages. The crux of the case, therefore, is whether the van’s ACE insurance policy includes UM coverage.

The court sided with ACE insurance in holding that the van’s insurance policy did not include UM coverage because the owner of the van properly rejected ACE’s UM coverage option. The owner of the van that Ms. Terrell was driving was a corporation— Professional Transportation, Inc. (PTI), a company that leased the vehicle from another owner.

The owner of the van, PTI, is a corporation and is unable to act on its own behalf. Instead PTI acts on its own behalf as all corporations do: by authorizing individuals to act on behalf of the corporation. That’s exactly what happened here. The owner of PTI verbally authorized one of its employees to obtain insurance and sign insurance forms. The court agreed with ACE that because that employee clearly and unambiguously rejected the van’s UM coverage ACE is not responsible for any UM insurance.

Ms. Terrell argued that although PTI’s employee rejected the UM coverage according to the above criteria for proper rejection, the rejection was invalid because PTI never properly authorized the employee to obtain insurance on its behalf. The court sided against Ms. Terrell because Louisiana’s Revised Statute 22:1295 makes clear that the insured or his legal representative can reject UM coverage. Here PTI’s employee was PTI’s legal representative, and Ms. Terrell was unable to convince the court that PTI had to do more than verbally authorize its employee to act on its behalf.

Because the owner of the van properly rejected the UM coverage, Ms. Terrell faces an uphill challenge if the Defendant is uninsured or underinsured and unable to pay all of her damages.

If you have been in an automobile accident or need assistance in selecting or collecting on an insurance policy, contact the Berniard Law Firm at (504) 527-6225 where a qualified attorney will provide you with the advice you deserve.