“I’ll have the Limited Tort, Please”

By Michael R. Nesfeder, Esq.
Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba, P.C.

The economy has been down so long, so slow in recovering, that “cutbacks” have become part of our home and business lives. High gas and energy prices aren’t helping, either. People are asking more and more – “where or what can I cut?”

Sometimes this mentality – cutting back, reducing expenses, saving money, – spills over into other areas in our lives, like the cable bill or dining out. But car insurance shouldn’t be one of them. “Skimping” here could leave you with regrets. Far reaching ones.

In Pennsylvania, drivers have to choose “full tort” or “limited tort” when they buy their auto insurance. Often times, people select “limited tort” coverage in exchange for payment of a lower premium. The problem is that sometimes drivers don’t realize the impact of that election until it’s too late – after an accident occurs. It’s not until then that a driver asks “what did I give up?” The answer: Possibly a lot.

Limited tort purchasers give up their right to make claims for “non-economic” loss, generally referred to as “pain and suffering.” The one way the law allows you to get around this is if you sustain a “serious injury” or a “serious impairment of bodily function.” Say what? Who determines that? And how?

The law provides that it might ultimately be a jury’s job to decide those questions. There’s no doubt that death is a serious injury, but the rest is potentially left for someone else’s interpretation.

With “full tort” electors, there’s no question that they have full rights. No exclusions. No exceptions. No wiggling. Now, this doesn’t mean that full tort electors don’t go to trial. Limited tort electors, however, leave open for argument whether your injury was or was not serious or whether you were or were not seriously impaired. Sounds like a lawsuit? Like a trial? It can be.

In the end, the premium savings limited tort electors gain in the short run may very well backfire in the long run if an accident occurs. The costs incurred in trying to prove that their injuries are serious or that they are seriously impaired quickly “eat up” all those premium reductions obtained in prior years. And then, what if the jury disagrees with you? Although injured, you may not recover compensation for your injuries.

Other areas of coverage that people often don’t pay enough attention to are “uninsured” and “underinsured” coverage. These two coverages are “optional” – perhaps a clear invitation to forego them to save some premium charges. Kind of like when you’re offered an extended service plan. You think – “nah, I won’t need that” or “I’ve already paid enough for what I’m buying – why do I need to pay more?” As with the washer or dryer that breaks down right after the warranty expires, this insurance decision can backfire, too.

A rough example: Let’s say you’re involved in an accident and you’re injured pretty badly. The other driver has either no insurance or the state minimum coverage of $15,000. This sets up a possible uninsured claim or an underinsured claim. If you purchased uninsured and underinsured coverage, you’ll be able to make a claim against your own policy for the value of your injuries which either weren’t covered at all or only partially covered by the state minimum. But, what if you didn’t buy those coverages (because, remember, you didn’t have to)?  You could end up with zero or the $15,000 discussed above, clearly (and literally) adding “insult to injury”.

So, what’s the lesson here? Dig into that drawer at home and check your insurance policy. And you should do that right now. What did you elect to buy? And, more importantly, what did you decline in order to try to save money? Call your agent. Ask questions. Double check everything. Find out now what rights you have (or don’t) and be informed before an accident occurs. Confirm that you’ll have plenty of coverage if and when you’re involved in an accident with an issue you do not have control over – a driver who chose to not get insurance at all or only purchased the minimum.

When you meet with your attorney and he or she asks – “did you have full tort or limited tort” – you’ll know that he’s not asking about a dessert. And when your attorney says “can I see your list of coverages,” you’ll know that you have “good coverage” because you took the time (again, before the accident) to review what you have (and what you don’t). As with any choice, an informed one is always the best one.

Mr. Nesfeder is a shareholder at Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba, P.C., a law firm in Center Valley. His legal practice includes civil litigation, plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, creditor’s rights, multi-family housing and fair housing. He can be reached at 610-797-9000 and mnesfeder@flblaw.com.

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