While just about every licensed driver will be involved in at least one or two accidents over the course of a driving lifetime (with the "average" driver turning in an insurance claim about every 18 years), the process is never a pleasant one—particularly if you're injured as a result of someone else's negligence behind the wheel. Unfortunately, insult can often be added to this injury if you find that the at-fault driver was engaged in the commission of a crime at the time of your accident and his or her insurance policy is refusing to make an offer of settlement or disclaiming responsibility for any eventual monetary judgment. Read on to learn more about how criminal act exclusions could impact your claim, as well as the legal options available if you're not sure whether the defendant's insurer will fairly compensate you for the injuries you've suffered.
What effect does the criminal act exclusion have on insurance coverage?
Most insurance policies contain an exclusionary clause that exempts the insured from coverage if he or she causes damage while engaging in a criminal act. In many cases, this exclusion can come into play even if the insured is never formally charged with or convicted of a crime—however, in these cases, the insurer may still be required to defend the insured or pay out any costs incurred in the accident if it's possible the insured can be judged not guilty of the alleged crime.
This criminal act exclusion can cover a wide variety of behavior, from driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs to texting while driving, excessively speeding, attempting to evade arrest or flee the scene of a crime, or any other number of actions for which one can be criminally charged while operating a vehicle. In many states, a defendant who pleads guilty to a vehicle-related felony can be deemed to have waived the right to be defended by his or her insurance company in a later civil claim for injuries or property damage.
How can the application of the criminal act exclusion impact your injury claim?
The most common scenario in which the criminal act exclusion is applied involves a driver who is convicted of DUI. While most insurance companies will continue to cover individuals who are arrested or convicted of DUI (simply dropping coverage after the conviction is entered or hiking up rates to compensate for the increased risk), those who are convicted of or plead guilty to more serious felony DUIs may have a tougher road—especially those who have already purchased high-risk insurance due to their past DUI convictions. These high-risk insurance policies often have even broader criminal act exclusions in order to limit their own liability.
Fortunately, your own auto insurance coverage should step in to fill any gaps if the other driver's actions are determined to implicate the criminal act exclusion and prevent his or her insurance company from extending coverage. You'll also be able to sue the driver personally, rather than suing the insurance company—this can often be a good decision if the driver has liquid or easily-attachable assets (like multiple bank accounts, non-retirement investments, or even pension income).
On the other hand, if you're fairly sure the driver is indigent and is not poised to inherit a great sum of money or otherwise generate the funds needed to pay a legal judgment, spending the time and money to pursue judgment may not be the best use of your resources. If you do go this route, you'll want to find an attorney who is willing to take your case on a contingency-fee basis to minimize your out-of-pocket costs until the case has resolved.
For more information on your options, contact an attorney at a law firm such as Gelman Gelman Wiskow & McCarthy LLC.