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Georgia Supreme Court Rules Plaintiff Entitled to Uninsured Motorist Benefits

A person who is injured in a car or truck accident, due to the negligence of another, may file a claim or lawsuit against the responsible party or parties to recover damages for their suffering and losses. In many of these cases, the plaintiff must be sure to serve the automobile insurance carriers in order to fully recover under the applicable policies.  Determining one’s eligibility to recover under Georgia law, to what extent, and under which insurance policies are all complicated and case-specific questions. The answers are not necessarily easy to predict and often require thoughtful analysis by an experienced Atlanta injury law attorney who handles car accident claims, and who can assess your case and prepare a solid strategy for recovery.

In a recent case arising from a car accident between a truck and a County school bus, FCCI Insurance Company v. McLendon Enterprises, Inc., et al. (Sup. Ct. of Ga. 2015), the highest court in the state agreed to resolve an issue regarding an injured party’s eligibility to recover uninsured motorist benefits. According to facts revealed in the District Court, Brooks Lamar Mitchell was an employee of McLendon when he was driving a truck with two passengers and collided with a County bus.  Mitchell and his two passengers allegedly sustained various injuries as a result of the accident.  In 2013, Mitchell sued the driver of the bus and the County Board of Education in order to recover damages for his injuries.  Mitchell also served FCCI, his employer’s uninsured motorist (“UM”) insurer.

The School District had an insurance policy with a $1,000,000 liability limit. The carrier settled with Mitchell’s passengers for a total amount of $350,000 and formed an agreement to settle with Mitchell for $650,000, the balance of the policy limit.  Mitchell also filed for UM benefits under his employer’s policy. In turn, FCCI filed an action with the District Court, seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not responsible – on behalf of McLendon – for any injury or damages allegedly resulting from the car accident described above.  In applying Georgia law, the District Court determined that Mitchell was entitled to recover UM benefits under his employer’s insurance policy with FCCI.  The Court relied on an earlier Georgia case that held that an insured could maintain a claim under UM coverage despite the full sovereign immunity of the party causing the injury and the inability to prove that they would be legally entitled to recover from that party.

The Court found that this principle extended to “tortfeasors” who are only partially protected by sovereign immunity, as in this case. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit determined that neither it nor the Georgia Appellate Court has ever decided this particular issue. Furthermore, the Court pointed out that the ultimate result will depend on a court’s review of Georgia state law.  Therefore, the Georgia Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal and narrowed its review to a phrase found in the insurance policy:  “legally entitled to recover.”  After reviewing this language in conjunction with Section 33-24-51 of the State Code and relevant case law, the Court affirmed the District Court’s decision. The Court pointed out that the goal of the statute is to enable a court to identify an insurer’s liability to the insured in accordance with the policy – whether or not the uninsured motorist is known.

Here, the Court upheld the injured party’s right to seek damages under the UM policy, despite the fact that the tortfeasor was entitled to partial sovereign immunity. As this case illustrates, determining the extent of a potential recovery under insurance policies can be a complicated task.  An experienced injury attorney would be able to navigate the process with ease and confidence while handling your case.  Stephen M. Ozcomert is an injury attorney with over 20 years of experience handling car accident cases, representing individuals who have been injured as a result of another’s negligence in Atlanta and throughout Georgia. Call us today at (404)-370-1000 to schedule a free initial consultation, or you can reach us through our website.

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