An Expanded Look At Iowa's Uninsured Motorist Coverage Law

Not all vehicle owners comply with Iowa's financial responsibility law, which requires liability insurance of a certain amount for all motor vehicles. If you're in a car accident, truck accident, drunk driving accident, or motorcycle accident with an uninsured vehicle, there may be no money available to pay monetary compensation for your personal injuries or a loved one's wrongful death unless the vehicle owner has sufficient assets to cover the damages. Otherwise, you're only possible recovery will be through the uninsured motorist coverage on your vehicle, if you have insurance on the vehicle. Iowa law mandates that your motor vehicle insurance coverage include a minimal amount of uninsured motorist coverage, although you can receive greater coverage in exchange for higher premiums if you choose. Our earlier discussion of uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage can be found here.

Unfortunately, insurance companies often fight hard to avoid paying their insureds under uninsured motorist coverages. Iowa law requires proof of four elements before an insurance company will be liable to pay under an uninsured motorist provision: 1) the injured person is an insured under the insurance policy provisions; (2) the injured person is legally entitled to recover damages from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle; (3) the injury to the insured was caused by an accident; and (4) the injury arose out of the ownership, maintenance, or use of an uninsured motor vehicle. Uninsured motorist coverage is denied if the injured person fails to prove any of those elements.

Legal fights over uninsured motorist benefits often center on the second element above. The injured person has the burden of establishing under the “legally entitled to recover” both that the uninsured motorist was liable and the extent of the insured’s injuries and damages. The insured can prove the “legally entitled to recover” element by either obtaining a valid judgment against the uninsured motorist or by bringing a direct action against the insurer under the insurance policy. The legal entitlement to recovery does not have to be proved first in a separate lawsuit against the uninsured driver. A judgment against the uninsured driver is not necessary to seek uninsured motorist benefits from an insurer. But, whether a claim is brought against the uninsured driver or solely against the insurer, the insured’s entitlement to recovery depends on establishing the uninsured motorist’s liability.

In defending against a "legally entitled to recover" argument, an insurer may assert as a defense to a claim the nonnegligence of the uninsured and any other defenses that the uninsured driver may have had available had that driver been sued. The general rule is that the determination of whether an insured is legally entitled to recover includes considering the defenses available to the uninsured motorist. If an uninsured motorist is not negligent, because a defense negated an element of the negligence claim or otherwise, then the insured motorist is not legally entitled to recover uninsured motorist benefits from the insurer. Because proof of the uninsured motorist’s liability is an element that must be established by the insured to recover uninsured motorist benefits, permitting injured persons to recover uninsured motorist benefits when they are unable to establish the uninsured driver’s fault would be inconsistent with the purpose of uninsured motorist coverage.

Uninsured motorist claims are complicated. Complex legal issues and terms may come into play because of the four elements identified above. Many insurance policies also include time limits for filing suit against the insurer under the uninsured motorist coverage, which can be as short as one year. A claim for uninsured motorist benefits is usually forfeited if it's not filed within the applicable policy time limits. For these reasons we strongly recommend that you seek legal assistance in pursuing a claim for uninsured motorist benefits.

Harley Erbe