Statute Must be Interpreted as Written

No Waiver Required When UM Coverage Exceeds Statutory Minimums

For reasons difficult to believe people buy more insurance coverage to protect persons they injure than to protect themselves from uninsured or underinsured motorists. When an accident occurs and injuries are in excess of the available limits, the injured person will sue his or her insurer to obtain the benefits the insured failed to buy.

In Lauren Van Laar, v. Nationwide Agribusiness Insurance Company, C082935, Court Of Appeal Of The State Of California Third Appellate District (San Joaquin),  (December 18, 2017) Van Laar had $1,000,000 in liability protection and only $300,000 in uninsured motorist coverage. She was severely injured and tried to compel Nationwide to pay her the limit of liability she bought to protect her from people she might injure.

Her suit failed and a trial court entered judgment in favor of  Nationwide Agribusiness Insurance Company (Nationwide). The sole question presented to the appellate court was one of statutory construction: Whether California Insurance Code section 11580.2 requires a written waiver to reduce uninsured motorist coverage where the coverage offered is less than the policy’s bodily injury liability limits but exceeds $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Van Laar was involved in an automobile accident with a third party who had no insurance available to compensate her for her injuries. Van Laar sought compensation from Nationwide, the insurance provider for a policy on which she was listed as an insured driver. The Nationwide insurance policy provided liability coverage of $1,000,000 and uninsured motorist coverage of $300,000, as set forth in an attached schedule. Van Laar demanded liability coverage limits of $1,000,000 from Nationwide, but Nationwide would provide her only $300,000.

Van Laar sued Nationwide for declaratory relief, seeking a judicial declaration that Nationwide owed Van Laar insurance coverage of $1,000,000 for the injuries she sustained in an automobile accident with an uninsured motorist.

DISCUSSION

California Insurance Code Section 11580.2, subdivision (a)(1) provides in pertinent part:

“No policy of bodily injury liability insurance covering liability arising out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of any motor vehicle, . . . shall be issued or delivered in this state . . . unless the policy contains, or has added to it by endorsement, a provision with coverage limits at least equal to the limits specified in subdivision (m) and in no case less than the financial responsibility requirements specified in Section 16056 of the Vehicle Code insuring the insured, the insured’s heirs or legal representative for all sums within the limits that he, she, or they, as the case may be, shall be legally entitled to recover as damages for bodily injury or wrongful death from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle. The insurer and any named insured, prior to or subsequent to the issuance or renewal of a policy, may, by agreement in writing, in the form specified in paragraph (2) or paragraph (3), (1) delete the provision covering damage caused by an uninsured motor vehicle completely, or (2) delete the coverage when a motor vehicle is operated by a natural person or persons designated by name, or (3) agree to provide the coverage in an amount less than that required by subdivision (m) but not less than the financial responsibility requirements specified in Section 16056 of the Vehicle Code.” (Italics added by the court)

Subdivision (m) of section 11580.2 provides that:

“[c]overage provided under an uninsured motorist endorsement or coverage shall be offered with coverage limits equal to the limits of liability for bodily injury in the underlying policy of insurance, but shall not be required to be offered with limits in excess of the following amounts: [¶] (1) A limit of thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) because of bodily injury to or death of one person in any one accident. [¶] (2) Subject to the limit for one person set forth in paragraph (1), a limit of sixty thousand dollars ($60,000) because of bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in any one accident.”

Construed as a whole, this statute means that uninsured motorist coverage must equal the limits of liability if those limits exceed the $15,000/$30,000 minimum required under the financial responsibility statute but only up to a maximum of $30,000 per person or $60,000 per accident.

Therefore, the court concluded that the only plausible interpretation of the statute that gives effect to all of its terms is that where an insurer fails to obtain a written waiver of uninsured motorist coverage, the automobile insurance policy will then be construed by operation of law to provide uninsured motorist benefits in an amount equal to the bodily injury liability limits of the policy up to, but not exceeding, $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident.

Contrary to Plaintiff’s allegations, in the absence of a written waiver, Van Laar was statutorily entitled to coverage in an amount equal to the bodily injury liability limits of the policy up to but not exceeding $ 30,000 per person and $ 60,000 per accident. Thus, no written waiver was required to provide contractual uninsured motorist coverage of $300,000, which exceeds both the statutory floor and the statutory ceiling, rather than the underlying policy umbrella liability limits of $1,000,000.

ZALMA OPINION

Insureds and their lawyers should read the policy and the statutes governing the policy before filing suit. In this case only the court seems to have read the contract and statute. Since the statute required insurers to sell no less than $30,000 per person and $60,000 per accident, the insurer fulfilled more than the statutory requirement by selling $300,000 in coverage.

 


© 2017 – Barry Zalma

This article, and all of the blog posts on this site, digests and summarizes cases published by courts of the various states and the United States.  The court decisions have been modified from the actual language of the court decisions, were condensed for ease of reading, and convey the opinions of the author regarding each case.

Barry Zalma, Esq., CFE, now limits his practice to service as an insurance consultant  specializing in insurance coverage, insurance claims handling, insurance bad faith and insurance fraud almost equally for insurers and policyholders. He also serves as an arbitrator or mediator for insurance related disputes. He practiced law in California for more than 44 years as an insurance coverage and claims handling lawyer and more than 50 years in the insurance business. He is available at http://www.zalma.com and zalma@zalma.com.

Mr. Zalma is the first recipient of theLEGEND-TROPHY-2 first annual Claims Magazine/ACE Legend Award.

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Legal Disclaimer:

The author and publisher disclaim any liability, loss, or risk incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, of the use and application of any of the contents of this blog. The information provided is not a substitute for the advice of a competent insurance, legal, or other professional. The Information provided at this site should not be relied on as legal advice. Legal advice cannot be given without full consideration of all relevant information relating to an individual situation.

 

 

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About Barry Zalma

An insurance coverage and claims handling author, consultant and expert witness with more than 48 years of practical and court room experience.
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