In Georgia, When Does Your Car Insurance Kick In After an Accident?
This article focuses on explaining the obligations of insurance companies to defend and indemnify their policy holders.
Duty to Defend
Buying an insurance policy reduces your risks and protects you from being personally responsible for financial damages. In this series of articles, we are primarily focusing on automobile insurance. The coverage we are discussing will protect the policy holder from damages arising from their operation and ownership of a vehicle. It is generally understood that automobile insurance will cover repairs to someone else’s vehicle or your own vehicle if you are at fault in an accident.
What is not so well known is the fact that most automotive insurance policies have coverage that provides the policy holder with legal defense when they are sued. This is called the “duty to defend.” This term describes the insurance company’s obligation to provide their policy holder with legal defense for claims made under a liability insurance policy. This duty extends to the policy holder for any bodily injury or property damage alleged in any complaint filed that would be covered by the policy.
For instance, if the claim alleges the policy holder was negligent and the policy provided coverage for the insured’s negligent acts, the insurance company would hire an attorney to defend the policy holder against the negligence claim.
In general, there only needs to be proof that there a potential for coverage under the policy for the insurance company to become obligated with a duty to defend. This means the duty to defend may exist even when coverage is in doubt.
The duty to defend does not exist for claims that are not covered by the policy. An example would be when the policy holder acts intentionally. Assume the claim against the policy holder is that they intentionally struck the claimant and caused injury. The plaintiff’s charges allege the intentional torts of assault and battery. In this case, there would not be coverage, or a duty to defend, because intentional acts are typically not covered by the policy.
Duty to Indemnify
Indemnification is one of those fancy legal terms. In the simplest terms, it means someone else, other than the person who cause the harm, will be responsible to injury person to compensate them for their loss.
For insurance companies, this means they have a duty to pay covered claims made against their policy holders. Regarding insurance policies, they are generally written so that the duty to defend is broader than their duty to indemnify. For example, if a lawsuit is filed that alleges several complaints against the policy holder, and one of those claims is valid and covered by the policy, the insurance company has the duty to defend the policy holder for the entire lawsuit. The duty to defend is determined by reviewing the complaint allegations and by the insurance companies’ own investigation of the claims.
Looking at a case involving negligence and an intentional tort will best illustrate this point. A lawsuit is filed against a policy holder that contains complaints of both negligence and the intentional tort of battery. Although the claim of intentional tort of battery is not covered because intentional acts are excluded, the insurance company must defend the entire lawsuit because the negligence claim is covered under the policy.
If the jury were to return with a verdict that states the policy holder intentionally caused the plaintiff’s injury, the insurance company would be released from its duty to indemnify the policy holder, meaning it would not pay the damages associated with the intentional injury. The plaintiff would be personally responsible for paying damages resulting from intentional acts. However, up to the moment the jury returns with this verdict, the insurance company had to defend all the claims in the lawsuit because the claim of negligence is covered under the policy. And, if the jury returned a verdict that the claim is awarded due to the policy holder’s negligence, the insurance company would have to indemnify and pay the dollar amount awarded in the lawsuit (up to the policy limits) because the reason for the claim was the covered act of negligence.
In summary, the insurance company must defend against all claims if one alleged claim is covered. And, it has no duty to pay any claims that are not covered by the policy.
To learn more about how car insurance works in Georgia, click on one of the following links:
- When Can I Recover from Someone’s Else’s Insurance?
- The Declarations Page
- Duty to Defend (this article)
- Reservation of Rights
- Bad Faith
- Commercial General Liability
- Direct Actions Against Insurance Companies
- Uninsured Motorists
- Underinsured Motorists