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The most common causes of serious injury and death in the United States each year result from Auto accidents and collisions. Although advancements in technology have made vehicles and roads significantly safer, automobile accidents remain a common occurrence. Advancements in safety technology and improvements in auto capabilities (i.e. 500 horsepower) have made anyone capable of driving a car a potential deadly weapon. Coupled with the increasingly hardline negotiations coming from insurance companies, many injured persons simply cannot get the recovery they deserve on their own. In fact, auto accident lawsuits are among the most common type of civil tort case filed by attorneys today. It is important to note that not every car accident will result in litigation.
Automobile accidents are founded in the principles of negligence. Negligence is generally defined as the lack of ordinary care. It may arise from doing an act that a reasonably prudent person would not have done under the same circumstances, or, from failing to do an act that a reasonably prudent person would have done under the same circumstances.
The most common types of automobile accidents are caused by driver negligence.
Auto accidents caused by negligence can arise under many situations. The most common cause of automobile accidents is driver error. Driver errors are often a result of failure to yield the right of way, following too closely, driving at an excessive rate of speed, driving while intoxicated and failure to see or obey traffic control devices. In the case of semi-truck accidents, many time too many hours on the road, as seen in the drivers log, will result in a split-second mistake that results in the loss of lives to many.
Distractions to Vehicle Driver
However, these are not the only causes of auto accidents. As a result of our multi-tasked world, distractions to a motor vehicle driver have become an increasing cause of accidents. Common distractions include: car driver uses a cellular phone, car driver attempts to read, car driver puts on makeup, car driver changes the radio station and numerous other distractions both inside and outside of the vehicle.
Failure to Properly Service and Maintain a Truck, Bus, or Commercial Vehicle
Another significant area of negligence, often involving commercial vehicles, big-rigs, semis, busses, etc.., involves the failure to properly service and maintain the vehicle.
This failure is being seen more frequently in accidents every day. Typically, these accidents, or the resulting injuries, are a result of a breakdown of a part of the car, truck or bus due to the failure of the owner or a service company to properly maintain and service the vehicle.
Injuries involving semi-trucks are, quite often, catastrophic. The simple failure to properly maintain the brakes on an eighteen wheeler commercial vehicle can result in a catastrophic collision with little or no notice.
Liability – “Who pays when both are at fault?”
Often times, the responsibility for an auto accident does not rest with one single person. There can be multiple factors which caused or contributed to an automobile accident. In some situations the accident simply results from both drivers’ negligence. In those situations a Missouri jury is permitted to compare and apportion the negligence of the plaintiff against that of the defendant and adjust its damage award to the plaintiff according to the degree of comparative negligence of the plaintiff. Thus, if a jury finds the plaintiff 35% responsible for an accident, the jury can reduce the plaintiff’s recovery by 35%. In some situations, a jury can even find that an injured party is 100% responsible for a motor vehicle accident. If that is the case, the injured party will not be entitled to a recovery from the other party, no matter how badly injured he/she is. However, there may be limited recovery available under the medical payments provisions of your own insurance policy.
Coverage is many times the name of the game. It is an unfortunate, but sometimes the negligent operator of a car may not have sufficient insurance coverage to cover the victim of his/her negligence. In some cases, the victim of an automobile accident may be entitled to make a claim under his/her own automobile insurance policy. This is often known as Uninsured Motorists or Under Insured Motorists (UM/UIM) coverage. It typically arises under two circumstances:
1. The negligent driver has no insurance
2. The negligent driver has minimal insurance
Where the negligent driver is uninsured, it is often difficult for a person who is injured in an auto accident to obtain a fair recovery. If the injured person carries what is known as "uninsured motorist coverage" through their own automobile insurance policy, they may be able to receive compensation in the case that the other driver fails to carry insurance or cannot be identified (i.e. a hit and run accident or the phantom driver). Sometimes the at-fault driver is under-insured and carries insurance coverage that is simply too low, often at the minimum level required by state law. Missouri has very low minimal insurance requirements of $25,000.00, which unfortunately means that some drivers on the road carry inadequate coverage. In those cases a person may be able to protect themselves by purchasing additional coverage, called under insured motorist coverage, through their own insurance company. If they are injured through the fault of an underinsured motorist, they may be able to obtain recovery through their own insurance policy. In the case of an uninsured motorist the available coverage is many times greater than had they been covered under Missouri “stacking” laws.
Missouri Stacking Provisions of Uninsured Motorists Policies
Stacking refers to combining the available insurance coverage found on the multiple insurance policies a party may have. Missouri law allows victims of uninsured motorist to combine or “stack” policies in order to receive just compensation. For example, say you are injured in an accident with an uninsured motorist, and you have auto insurance in Missouri. If your injuries are severe enough you may not have enough coverage under a single policy, especially if you only have the state minimum coverage of $25,000 in uninsured motorist coverage. However, a person with multiple policies may be able to “stack” the policies in order to cover the injuries. In that case if you had 3 policies, with $25,000.00 in coverage, you would have at least $75,000 in uninsured motorist coverage.
In the case were an accident occurs involving the named insured on the policy and the at fault driver has no insurance coverage then Missouri case law is well-settled that UM coverage can be stacked given the statutory mandate for UM coverage, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 379.203, and the strong public policy derived from the statute. Cameron Mutual Insurance Co. v. Madden, 533 S.W.2d 538 (Mo. 1976). In some cases insurance companies have attempted to avoid this liability by including “anti-stacking” provisions in their policies. “Anti-stacking” provisions, with respect to the named insured, are void. Galloway v. Farmers Insurance Company, Inc., 523 S.W.2d 339 (Mo. Ct. App. 1975).
In the case were an accident occurs involving and occupant of the insured vehicle, other than the named insured and household residents, appellate courts have historically held that stacking is not required. Hines v. Government Employees Insurance Company, 656 S.W.2d 262 (Mo. banc 1983).
It is important to note that public policy does not require stacking of UM coverage on fleet commercial policies where the individual’s involvement, or covered status, arose solely from his occupancy of a vehicle. Linderer v. Royal Globe Insurance Company, 597 S.W.2d 656 (Mo. Ct. App. 1980). It is also important to note, public policy does not require the “doubling” of UM policy limits where multiple UM vehicles contributed to cause an accident. Tresner v. State Farm Mutual Insurance Company, 957 S.W.2d 380 (Mo. Ct. App. 1997).
Missouri Stacking Provisions of Under Insured Motorists Policies
While UM coverage is mandated, and as a result creates a public policy for stacking, there is no statute in Missouri mandating underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage. As a result, the ability to stack UIM policies are typically determined contractually between the insured and insurer. Rodriguez v. General Accident Insurance Company, 808 S.W.2d 379 (Mo. 1991).
However, Missouri Courts have certainly not precluded stacking of UIM policies. In interpreting insurance policies, Missouri courts have held UIM “anti-stacking” provisions ambiguous. In addition, Missouri courts have held that if the policy of insurance intertwines UM and UIM coverage to the point where there is an ambiguity between the two, an insured is permitted to stack the UIM coverage. Bauer v. Farmers Insurance Company, 270 S.W.3d 491 (Mo. Ct. App. 2008); Niswonger v. Farm Bureau Town & Country Insurance Company of Missouri, 992 S.W.2d 308 (Mo. Ct. App. 1999) (where UM and UIM coverage were “lumped together” as one coverage on the declarations page and a single premium was charged for both, even though the coverage was defined and treated separately in the policy itself).