The purpose of punitive damages is to punish the party at fault (disciplinary) and to set an example to deter future wrongdoers (exemplary). They are usually awarded against defendants in cases of intentional or highly reckless conduct, not just for simple negligence.
However, willful or intentional conduct that rises to the level of punitive damages is usually considered uninsurable as a matter of public policy, so no third-party coverage is available to cover such awards.
What about first-party uninsured motorist coverage? It should be possible for the innocent party to insure itself against just about anything.
While some states allow uninsured motorist insurance to cover punitive damages, California does not. As noted, punitive damages are given to the policyholder to punish the at-fault party in a vehicle accident.
Notably, underinsured motorist coverage (UIM) is different from UM insurance. It pays a policyholder for any damages they suffer in an accident where the at-fault party has insurance but not enough to cover all injuries.
Under California law, a UM or UIM policy cannot pay a policyholder for punitive damages, and drivers are not required to have these types of coverage.
However, an insurance company must offer this coverage to policyholders. If someone decides against the policies, they must sign a waiver that says they were offered the range but decided to deny it. California law requires drivers to maintain a “15/30/5” liability insurance, discussed below.
Under California law, a driver must notify their insurance company promptly after an accident, despite who was at fault.
State law also requires policyholders to file a form SR-1 California accident report with the California DMV within ten days if they are involved in an accident that caused injury to anyone or exceeded $1,000 in vehicle damage. Let's review this topic further below.
What is Uninsured Motorist Coverage?
As California does not require vehicle owners to have uninsured motorist coverage, many people need to know what it is. Uninsured motorist coverage is a separate insurance policy that pays a policyholder when another driver causes a car accident but has no insurance to cover the injured party's medical bills, lost wages, etc.
California state requires vehicle owners to have 15/30/5 liability insurance at a minimum, which will pay a driver or injured passenger the following:
- Up to $15,000 for injury or death per person;
- Up to $30,000 for total bodily injury or death per accident; and
- Up to $5,000 for property damage to other vehicles.
The extra uninsured motorist policy pays a policyholder, covered family members, or other passengers when the other driver was at fault for the car accident but doesn't have insurance to cover the injured person's lost wages, pain and suffering, or medical bills that resulted from the accident.
For instance, Suppose Driver A is rear-ended by Driver B and suffers severe physical injuries. If Driver B has no insurance, Driver A's additional uninsured motorist policy will cover their medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering that the accident caused.
An uninsured motorist property damage insurance (UMPD) is a separate motorist policy from a UM policy. A UMPD policy pays the policyholder for any damage that an uninsured motor vehicle causes their vehicle. The policy might also pay for any personal property damage sustained in an accident.
What Uninsured Motorist Coverage is Not?
Uninsured motorist coverage differs from underinsured motorist coverage, which pays a policyholder for any damages they suffer when the at-fault party has insurance but doesn't have enough insurance to cover all the injuries.
Additionally, most states do not allow underinsured motorist coverage to pay punitive damages for the same reason uninsured motorist coverage cannot.
Uninsured motorist insurance is also different from uninsured motorist property damage insurance, which pays the policyholder for damage the uninsured motor vehicle caused to the policyholder's car. Some states even allow it to pay for personal property damage caused by the accident.
These are additional policies that California vehicle owners can add to their liability insurance.
What Is Underinsured Motorist Coverage?
Underinsured motorist coverage helps pay for someone's damages when they get injured by a driver who has insurance but not enough to cover all of the injured party's damages. UIM coverage can pay for the following:
- medical expenses;
- lost wages; and
- pain and suffering.
As with UM insurance, a UIM policy does not pay a policyholder for punitive damages for the same reasons. Allowing a punitive damage award would not injure or punish the wrongdoer since the innocent party pays the policy.
Why Doesn't UIM Recover Punitive Damages?
Punitive damages are meant to punish the at-fault individual who caused the accident and to deter people from causing them.
The reason most states do not allow uninsured motorist insurance to recover punitive damages is that the policyholder who was not at fault for the accident is paying for the insurance, not the at-fault individual.
Some states do allow uninsured motorist insurance to cover punitive damages. They reason that it does not go against public policy. They believe punitive damages don't deter unwanted behavior. Instead, they believe that society would end up incurring the costs of the accident because liability insurance would increase.
It should be noted that punitive damages are not the same as compensatory damages, which are meant to compensate individuals for any losses incurred in a personal injury case. In an accident or injury, compensatory damages are either economic or non-economic.
Economic damages include medical bills, lost wages, and property damages. Non-economic damages include things like pain and suffering.
What to Do if You Get into an Accident in Los Angeles?
California law requires drivers to notify their insurance as soon as possible after an accident, whether or not they were at fault.
They also require them to file a form SR-1 California accident report with the DMV within ten days if they are involved in an accident and it caused an injury to anyone or caused more than $1,000 in damages to the vehicle. If you do not notify the DMV, your driver's license could be suspended.
If you are involved in an automobile accident, whether you are at fault or not, a skilled personal injury attorney can help you determine your options.
Suppose you were involved in a car accident. In that case, you should contact our law firm for a free case evaluation. Injury Justice Law Firm has offices in Los Angeles, California.