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Underinsured Motorist Coverage: Are You Really Protected?

A standard uninsured motor vehicle policy defines an “uninsured motor vehicle” as one that:

  • is uninsured
  • is underinsured
  • has been denied liability coverage
  • has an unknown tortfeasor (hit & run)

While this definition doesn’t seem too contentious, issues sometimes arise due to the requirement that the insured party must show they are “legally entitled to recover” compensation. This issue was first addressed by The Supreme Court in Green Mountain Insurance Co. v. George. The case involved a New Hampshire resident who was in a vehicular accident in Massachusetts. Although the Massachusetts resident was at fault for the collision, liability coverage was denied because George was unable to meet the $2,000 threshold in medical expenses. This also prevented George from seeking compensation for pain and suffering.

The Supreme Court deemed that the phrase “legally entitled to recover” refers to “whether the owner or operator of the uninsured vehicle was at fault.” Because the court construed the language of the policy with the purpose of honoring the reasonable expectations of the policy holder, George was able to recover uninsured motorist benefits for the accident.

This issue was taken up again in Gorman v. National Grange Mutual Insurance Company. The case involved an employee who was injured within the scope of her employment when a co-worker dropped large rock into the truck bed of bail loader that was in use. The dispute was not that the co-worker was at fault for dropping the rock, instead, the issue was that New Hampshire’s workers’ comp law prevented Gorman from seeking compensation from an agent of her employer.

Although workers’ comp covers medical expenses, it does not cover pain and suffering. Uninsured motorist coverage was denied to Gorman who had to ask for a declaratory judgment. Under the authority established by the Green Mountain case, The Superior Court granted Gorman’s petition.

When the issue came up again in Matarese v. New Hampshire Municipal Association, The Supreme Court went in a different direction. This case involved an on-duty police officer injured in an accident with an uninsured motorist. Liability coverage was denied based on a rule that prevents public safety officers from suing for personal injuries that are caused by the negligent conduct of another person during the scope of the officer’s official duties.

While officers are entitled to line-of duty benefits, they cannot be compensated for injuries they receive for the very service they are paid to undertake. Matarese sought uninsured motorist benefits, but was denied. The Supreme Court would rule that the “analysis supporting the rule adopted in Green Mountain and reapplied in Gorman is legally unsound.” This would ultimately overrule the totality of judgments made in the previous two cases. The court concluded that the phrase “legally entitled to recover” doesn’t leave room for interpretation and since Matarese’s action was barred by her occupation, she was unable to pursue uninsured motorist benefits.

This decision by The Supreme Court was solidified in the case of Mutual Insurance Company v. Melanson. In this case, The Supreme court refused to overrule Matarese because over a decade had passed without any amendment to the uninsured motorist statute.

Ultimately, the ruling made in Matarese is a significant blow to injured parties who are required to have uninsured motorist coverage. While some of the cases referenced in this blog recovered compensation through workers’ comp and line-of-duty provisions, injured parties with uninsured motorist coverage have no alternative means of recovering their losses. Perhaps we should rethink what the phrase “legally entitled to recover,” really means.

Have you suffered an injury in an auto accident? Contact our team of New Hampshire personal injury attorneys to set up a free consultation today.

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