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Uninsured / under-insured motorist (UMC/UIM) coverage is optional insurance that can be added to an auto insurance policy in California. UMC/UIM coverage pays for losses in accidents in which another driver is at fault but either has no insurance or not enough insurance to cover the injured party's medical bills and other losses.

California law requires auto insurers to offer UMC/UIM coverage. Such coverage is not mandatory and may be declined. But purchasing it is usually a good idea.

California law requires all drivers to maintain a minimum of “15/30/5” vehicle liability insurance.1 However, California has more uninsured drivers than any other state.

Uninsured drivers generally have fewer assets and less income than drivers with insurance. This means that someone injured by an uninsured or underinsured driver may be unable to collect damages from the other driver for medical bills, lost wages, property damage, pain and suffering and other losses after a car accident in California.

To help you better understand California uninsured / under-insured auto insurance, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following, below:

two young people talking after car accident

1. What is uninsured motorist coverage in California?

California Law requires drivers to maintain so-called “15/30/5” liability insurance.

15/30/5 means that if the insured is at fault for an accident, the insurance company the insurance will pay up to:

  • $15,000 for bodily injury or death per person,
  • $30,000 for total bodily injury or death per accident (to all people in the other vehicle combined), and
  • $5,000 for property damage to the other vehicle.

Automobile insurance is available in California in higher amounts that 15/30/5. Many companies, for instance, offer up to $100,000 per person and $300,000 for total bodily injury per accident.

But many drivers cannot afford or are unwilling to pay the premiums for such insurance. This shifts the burden of paying for medical bills and other damages after a car accident to private health insurers or government programs such as Medicare and Medi-Cal.

To remedy this California law requires insurance companies to offer drivers coverage for accidents caused by uninsured drivers. This coverage is known as uninsured motorist coverage, or UMC.

2. What is underinsured motorist coverage?

Even when drivers do pay for insurance, they often elect coverage at the minimum amount. These amounts are often too low to cover damages for all but minor fender benders. They are particularly inadequate in cases of serious accidents when there are multiple occupants in the car.

Under-insured motorist coverage treats the other driver as uninsured for damages in excess of the at-fault driver's policy limits up to the policy limit of the driver with the underinsured motorist coverage.

3. Do I need uninsured motorist coverage if I have health insurance?

Private health insurance and programs such as Medicare and Medi Cal will pay medical bills after a car accident regardless of whose fault the accident was.

But many people have policies with high deductibles and co-pays. And health insurance plans do not cover services such as chiropractic care and acupuncture. Nor will they pay to fix property damages to cars or cover lost work time or pain and suffering.

UMC/UIM allows plaintiffs to recover from their own insurance company for all their compensatory damages after an accident that is not their fault.

4. How much UMC/UIM do I need?

California insurers generally offer customers uninsured/underinsured policy limits equal to a driver's liability policy limits.

So, for instance, if a driver has purchased 50/100 limits for accidents that they cause, they can usually purchase 50/100 policy limits for accidents caused by other drivers who are uninsured or under-insured.

In California, a driver may not collect more for injuries caused by an uninsured or underinsured motorist than the amount of insured's policy limits. This is different than in some states (such as Nevada) in which UM policies cover all damages caused by uninsured or under-insured drivers.

A driver who wants more insurance than the maximum UMC/UIM coverage available in California must purchase an umbrella policy. Umbrella policies are relatively inexpensive and can be applied to cover excess losses under any policy of insurance carried at the maximum available limits.

You should discuss your needs with your insurance broker. But generally speaking waving uninsured motorist coverage is not a good idea unless you have very very good health insurance and either do not work or have a very comprehensive disability insurance policy.

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5. Examples of how UMC/UIM insurance works

In each of these examples assume that Joe runs a red light and flips a car driven by Katie onto its side. Katie is knocked unconscious. Along with a head injury she has a broken arm.

Katie's medical bills total $50,000 and she misses six weeks of work for which she would have earned an additional $15,000. The cost to repair her vehicle is another $10,000. Therefore, Katie's total damages -- not including  pain-and-suffering -- are $75,000.

  • Example 1: Neither Joe nor Katie is insured.

Katie can sue Joe for her damages. But Joe may not have any assets to satisfy a judgment.

If Katie has private health insurance her medical bills will be covered. But she will be responsible for her deductibles and co-pays. Katie may also be entitled to California disability insurance or other benefits through her employer. If not, she is out of luck.

  • Example 2: Joe has the minimum 15/30/5 liability coverage

The maximum Joe's insurance will pay for any one person in any one accident is $15,000, which is all Katie will be able to recover. She will be responsible for the balance of her losses and will not be able to get anything additional for her pain and suffering.

Note that this would also be the case if Joe's liability limits are any amount less than $75,000 per person.

  • Example 3: Joe has 100/300/25 car insurance

In this scenario Joe has enough insurance to pay Katie or her full out-of-pocket losses of $75,000. In addition there is enough coverage for her possibly to recover something additional for pain-and-suffering.

  • Example 4: Joe has no car insurance but Katie has UMC/UIM coverage

Since Katie has uninsured motorist coverage she can collect up to the limits of her policy from her own insurer. So if Katie has the minimum 15/30/5 coverage, she will be able to collect $15,000 for her injuries and another 5,000 in property damage. If she has higher limits to her coverage she will be able to collect more still.

6. Making a claim under your California UM policy

Under most policies of insurance, a driver is obligated to notify the driver's insurer promptly after an accident, regardless of whose fault it is. (An exception is if no one is injured and there is only minor property damage to the insured's own vehicle).

But California law requires people to file a form SR-1 California accident report with the California Department of Motor Vehicles within 10 days if they are involved in an accident in which anyone is injured or the vehicle damage exceeds $1,000.2

Failure to notify the DMV as required by California law may result in the suspension of the driver's license.3

Once an accident has been reported, the insurer will use the police report (if any), witness statements, photographs and an examination of the insured's vehicle to determine fault for the accident.

The determination made by the insurer is not the final word. The insured party has the right to file a lawsuit to challenge the insurer's decision.

And even if an insured was partially to blame for accidents filing the suit may be worthwhile because of California's comparative fault law. This law allows people that are partly to blame for an accident to recover a portion of their damages.

7. How else can I recover damages if I am hit by an uninsured motorist?

Most people get their injuries taken care of after an accident through private or government health insurance. However, health insurers have the right to be reimbursed from the eventual proceeds of the uninsured motorist policy, if any. This is known as a California insurer's "subrogation" right.

This is why many people purchase optional "Med Pay" auto insurance in California. Med Pay covers injuries to both the driver and passengers regardless of who is at fault for an accident. It also covers the policy holder for injuries sustained while that person is a passenger in someone else's vehicle or is hit while walking on the street. 

Amounts paid through Med Pay are not subject to subrogation. In addition, premiums for med pay insurance are usually quite affordable.

But most companies' maximum Med Pay limits are usually fairly low ($10,000 is typical). So uninsured motorist coverage is still recommended for drivers who can afford it. 

Drivers who want more insurance than their UMC/UIM policy offers can obtain a California umbrella policy, as discussed in Section 4, above.

And finally, people who do not have any of these forms of insurance may be able to find a doctor, chiropractor or other health provider willing to accept payment on a medical lien basis in California.

Our California personal injury attorneys work with a network of doctors, chiropractors, physical therapists and other providers who may be willing to work on a medical lien after a California car accident.

Injured by an uninsured driver in California? Call us for help…

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If you or someone you know has been injured by an uninsured motorist we invite you to contact us for a free consultation.

Call us at (855) 396-0370 to discuss your options with a caring and knowledgeable California injury attorney.

You may be entitled to more compensation than your insurance company has offered.

We may also be able to help if you have been injured by an uninsured driver in Nevada.


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