How Much Auto Insurance Should You Carry?

The answer is easy: As much as you can afford.

The primary reason to buy automobile insurance, both liability and uninsured motorist (UM) coverage, is to protect yourself and your assets. Your insurance company will never pay more in damages, to you or to a person you negligently injure, than the dollar amount of the coverage you purchased, no matter how high a verdict there may be either against you or for you.

Sound complicated? Let’s look at two hypothetical examples regarding liability and underinsurance coverage to help make things easier to understand.

Liability Coverage

If you pay a policy premium for $25,000/50,000 in auto liability insurance coverage [1], this is what could happen if you negligently cause injury to another person in an auto accident and the injured person sues you. With significant injuries and damages, a jury might award the injured person $75,000 (a hypothetical figure). Under these facts, your insurance company would pay the injured plaintiff only $25,000 on your behalf, the amount of coverage you bought [2]. As a result, you could be held liable for payment of the remaining $50,000 yourself!

What would happen if you had purchased a larger $100,000/$300,000 policy? Your insurance company would ordinarily pay the injured person the entire judgment amount of $75,000. Consequently, you would not be obligated to pay any part of the judgment yourself. In summary, the more insurance coverage you buy, the less likely it is that you will ever be called upon to pay any part of a legal judgment against you.

Underinsurance Coverage (UIM)

Your purchase of high insurance limits can also help you or your family members when one or more of you are injured through the fault of another driver. This might occur if you and/or relatives who live with you sustain serious injuries in a motor vehicle accident, and the negligent driver who caused the accident has less insurance coverage than you do.

How does this work? As an example, let’s say the negligent driver has purchased a $25,000/$50,000 auto liability insurance policy, and you have a policy that provides $100,000/$300,000 in UM coverage. Your injuries are serious. Your medical bills and lost wages are substantial. In your lawsuit against the negligent driver, a jury awards you $100,000 in damages. The defendant driver’s insurance will pay you only $25,000, the maximum amount of liability coverage the defendant bought which can be paid to one person with respect to one accident. However, you can look to your own UM coverage to see if there is underinsurance coverage (UIM) available to you. Given the above facts, your insurance company would pay you $75,000 in underinsurance coverage.

How do you arrive at the $75,000 figure? It happens this way. Under Virginia law, if there is UM coverage available to you in an amount greater than the defendant’s liability coverage, you will have underinsurance coverage. If not, there will be no underinsurance for you.[3] The availability of underinsurance coverage depends on a comparison between a specific defendant’s liability coverage and the UM policy or policies which provide you coverage. With regard to the above example, your own insurance company would pay you $75,000 because that is the amount by which your own UM motorist coverage exceeds the defendant’s liability coverage of $25,000. By adding your $75,000 in underinsurance coverage to the defendant’s $25,000 liability limits, the $100,000 judgment against you would be paid in full.

However, there would be a different result if there was just one policy available that provided you only $25,000/$50,000 in UM coverage. Under the described facts, your insurance carrier would pay you nothing because your UM insurance coverage of $25,000/$50,000 does not exceed the defendant’s own $25,000/$50,000 liability limits. Yes, you can pursue the defendant driver personally through collection proceedings after trial. However, the average defendant has few assets and collecting on a judgment can be a long, expensive, and often futile endeavor. In the end, it is always better to carry high liability/UM insurance limits yourself and ensure that you and your own family are protected in the event one or more of you sustains severe injuries caused by the negligence of a driver with low automobile insurance coverage limits.[4]

Today it is easy to get auto insurance quotes on the internet. Do some comparison shopping. Many insurance companies offer better auto insurance deals than their competitors for the same insurance coverage. Not only that, you will find that a $100,000 liability policy does not cost four times as much as a $25,000 policy. The difference in cost between a $50,000 policy and a policy providing $100,000 in coverage or more is often relatively modest and well worth the price differential for the increase in coverage.

[1] Auto insurance limits of $25,000/$50,000 constitute the minimum amount of auto liability and uninsured motorist coverage you can buy in Virginia. Each state determines its own auto insurance minimum limits; therefore, minimum limits differ from state to state as do laws related to auto insurance. The facts in this article are based on Virginia law only. If you live in another state, you will want to learn about the applicable insurance laws in your own state.

[2] When you see a figure like $25,000/$50,000 in relation to an auto policy, it means the limits are “split”, that is, one injured person can recover a maximum of $25,000 under the policy while $50,000 is the most coverage the insurance company will pay out to all injured persons regardless of the number of people injured in the same accident or how badly they may be injured.

[3] In Virginia, you may be entitled to undersinsured motorist coverage under more than one policy, and these policies can sometimes be “stacked” to give you more coverage. Va. Code § 38.2-2206. This is a complex area of law, and it is wise to consult an attorney to explore whether there is underinsurance in your case.

[4] In Virginia, you cannot buy UM coverage in an amount that is higher than your auto liability insurance limits.