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This Answer to Traffic Accidents Really Helps Victims

Posted on Aug 08, 2016

A July 23, 2016 Spartanburg Herald Journal article describes how the criminal penalty for failure to yield—a $232.50 fine—pales in comparison to the damage that can be done when it causes a tragic loss of life. While I know firsthand the devastation a fatal auto accident can cause an innocent family, as I’ve helped several of them, I am not convinced this is the best way to address the problem.

Instead, this is a classic example where the civil justice system can fill in the gaps the criminal justice system can’t. In fact, a unique aspect of South Carolina auto insurance law gives victims the ability to control their access to financial relief they may need desperately in the wake of a serious truck or car wreck. The catch is that you have to act before the crash.

Harsher Penalties Don’t Help Victims

Threatening serious criminal penalties like jail time or a license suspension for a non-aggravated car wreck is a dangerous thing. We’ve got to remember the overriding purpose of the criminal law is punishing those who hurt others intentionally.

While there’s usually no excuse for disobeying the rules of the road, almost no one who causes a crash intends to hurt anyone. Granted, drivers should be subject to heavy criminal penalties when their conduct shows a flagrant disregard for others’ safety, like DUI or extreme speeding. But treating a driving mistake like an attack is unjustified.

There’s another way. The civil justice system can provide relief that might be more meaningful to wounded, grieving families. And it does have a deterrent effect.

The Civil Justice System Helps Injury Victims

Before you roll your eyes and say here’s another ambulance chaser whose gain is your pain—listen. I'm not chasing ambulances, I'm being honest about the hard truth of an awful situation: in the wake of a terrible injury, money is one thing victims and their families need acutely. A breadwinner’s been lost (maybe forever), bills are piling up—and the biggest bills will soon be on their way from the hospital.

Money won’t restore health or bring back the dead, but it does help the living go on. If I’m so wrong, cancel your life insurance. Money does provide a universal, easily understood measure of accountability. And no one wants to be sued—that prospect alone should encourage safer driving.

In the criminal justice system, only the courts get the money from fines. While courts can order restitution to cover some of the victims’ losses, it has to be paid personally by the defendant, who often has nowhere near enough money. Even when it’s paid, it often comes in small monthly increments, as it’s all the defendant can afford. And it never gets ordered to be paid until a conviction, which could be months or more. Meanwhile, you’re on your own. Sending a driver to prison won’t help this at all.

Help Yourself Before It Ever Happens

The overriding purpose of auto insurance is getting money to pay medical bills and replace lost wages plus compensate you for your injuries. The law requires liability insurance to cover at-fault drivers. But the most important auto insurance helps you when the at-fault driver doesn’t have enough liability insurance. It’s called underinsured motorist coverage, or UIM. It’s so essential the law requires it to be offered a certain way so you have a full understanding what it is and the danger of rejecting it. If it’s not offered the right way, injured people can get it anyway, up to the limits of their liability policy. I’ve done that before, and the folks that got it needed it terribly.

But don’t risk an experienced lawyer like me having to get it for you, because insurance companies are much better at offering UIM the right way. You’ve got to help yourself before a tragedy strikes. Talk to your insurance agent about getting as much auto insurance as you can, especially UIM. No one ever expects a car accident, but you can be prepared for the unthinkable. Talk to your agent now about protecting yourself and protecting your family. You’ll probably be shocked how cheap it is, especially when you consider how much it can help if you need it.

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