The language in your auto insurance contract controls what your auto insurance company has to pay for, whether it is your policy or the policy of the person who hurt you. Insurance companies agree to pay for part of the damage caused by somebody’s negligence up to a certain amount, called policy limits. What is actually written in the policy matters, as you can see from the case below. The issue was whether the insurance company had to pay the large attorney fee award given to an injured party when a drunk driver hit them and punitive damages were awarded. As you read the article, see how technical issues often determine how much money you are awarded for your pain and suffering. I suggest you read your auto insurance policy to see exactly what is and is not covered by your insurance company. You may be surprised at what you find.
The Ohio Supreme court has ruled in Neal-Pettit v. Lahman, Slip Opinion No. 2010-Ohio-1829 that attorney fees awarded to victims may have to be paid by auto insurance companies even though they are based on intentional or malicious actions that are not covered by the auto policy. This is a good decision that encourages the injured victims’ lawyers to seek full compensation for the injured person. The odd result is that the punitive damage award is not paid by the insurer, but the attorney fees may have to be paid.
When an Ohio driver is hurt as a result of another’s negligence on the road, the party at fault pays for the medical bills, pain and suffering, etc. of the injured party. If the person at fault has auto insurance, their company will pay this. This is why we all have to have auto insurance, to pay the people we accidentally hurt in car accidents. Accidents happen.
When someone hurts someone with malice or intent, such as drunk driving, it is much more serious and the law allows for more damages. There are additional penalties the drunk person may have to pay. These are punishments awarded by the court or a jury and are designed to hurt the at-fault party financially to act as a deterrent to others doing the same bad actions. They are called punitive damages. Insurance companies do not insure you against punitive damages and do not pay them. If you hurt someone recklessly, you are on your own as to paying the punitive damages.
By forcing liability insurance companies to pay for attorney fees awarded when there are punitive damages, it gives the attorney incentive to move forward with these types of cases and “punish” the drunk driver. Odd that the drunk drive has to pay his own punitive damage claim, but the insurance company may have to pay attorney fees awarded in association with those attorney fees. Any good news that gives plaintiff lawyers incentive to sue and collect money for the injured Ohioans is good news for all victims of car accidents. I think we can all agree that people who get drunk and hurt others should pay, and now their auto insurance companies have to pay also. Of course, expect changes to your policies stating that your auto insurance company will not pay for attorney fees associated with punitive damages. The decision simply says that if auto insurance companies are not alert enough to exclude the punitive damage based attorney fee award, it has to be paid.
As any competent Ohio car accident lawyer will tell you, Ohio law allows auto insurance companies to put almost any exclusion that they want into their auto policies. Obviously, Allstate did not think to add this exclusion. They probably will in the future. In my opinion they probably thought it was already excluded, but in Ohio any vagueness in the insurance contract is resolved in favor of the consumer who did not write the contract. Ambiguity in this case allows the injured party to collect attorney fees from the party-at-fault’s insurance company.