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Georgia Supreme Court Interprets State Motor Vehicle Limited Liability Release Provision

Car accident claims typically involve insurance coverage in one form or another. There are many types of policies and assorted levels of coverage. Parties injured in car accidents may be entitled to recover damages under one or more agreements, depending on the particular facts and circumstances. Significantly, Georgia law provides a great deal of guidance as far as the extent of recovery under certain policies, such as “uninsured” or “underinsured” motorist (“UM”) coverage, among other types. Since the amount a person would be entitled to recover in any given car accident case is dependent on the facts and applicable law, it is imperative that an injured person contact an experienced injury attorney from the local Atlanta area.

The Georgia Supreme Court recently agreed to hear an appeal in a case, Carter v. Progressive Mountain Insurance, to determine whether the lower court correctly applied the motor vehicle limited liability release provision of the state code in rendering its decision. In this case, on February 22, 2010, Velicia Carter (hereinafter “Carter”) was injured in a car accident with Jeova Claudino Oliviera (hereinafter “Oliviera”). Carter alleged that Oliviera was driving under the influence at the time of the accident. Oliviera’s liability insurance policy with Geico had a $30,000 per person liability limit. Carter’s insurance policy with Progressive Mountain Insurance Company (hereinafter “Progressive”) included UM coverage of $25,000 per person.

Carter brought an action against Oliviera and served Progressive as her UM carrier. She settled with Geico (Oliviera’s insurance company) for $30,000 and signed a limited liability release, which is governed by Georgia State Code Section 32-24-41.1. The release allocated just $1,000 of Geico’s payment to compensatory damages and $29,000 to punitive damages. As a result, Progressive moved for summary judgment on the UM claim. The trial court granted the motion, ruling that by imposing the condition that $29,000 of the liability coverage amount be apportioned to the payment of punitive damages, Carter did not comply with a prerequisite for recovery of UM proceeds. The appellate court affirmed, holding that by not allocating the entire payment to compensatory damages, the plaintiff failed to exhaust the limits of Oliviera’s liability policy and therefore gave up the right to make a UM claim. The court held that the Georgia statute permits an injured party to settle a claim and then recover UM benefits only to the claimant’s actual injuries or losses, not punitive damages.

The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the opinion, noting that the limited release provisions of the state code do not prohibit the sort of allocation that was made in the release in this case. The Court examined the statutory language and concluded that there is nothing in the law that precludes a statement in the release that a part of the payment be apportioned to punitive damages. The Court concluded that the appellate court erred by failing to realize that the plain language of the statute reaches the goal of forbidding the shifting of punitive damages, and it was error to interpret the release allocation as a failure to exhaust the limits of the liability policy. Carter was ultimately entitled to recover damages under her UM policy.

This case nicely illustrates the complicated nature of car accident claims under various kinds of insurance policies. If you have been injured in a car accident, it is important to contact an experienced injury attorney who would be able to quickly evaluate the case and determine the best possible approach to achieving a fair and just recovery.

Stephen M. Ozcomert has over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of negligent driving in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule your free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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