By: Jake Strawn

Uninsured Motorist coverage is a very important way to protect yourself and your family in the event of an accident. If you are an attorney who handles accident claims, chances are you have handled many cases involving an uninsured/underinsured motorist claim. Typically, unless the tortfeasor’s liability limits are equal to or exceed the UM/UIM limits, the UM/UIM will remain in the case until its conclusion.

Pursuant to Tennessee’s UM/UIM motorist statute (Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1201, et seq.), if an insured plaintiff motorist is not entitled to compensation from the uninsured/underinsured defendant motorist, the insured plaintiff is likewise not entitled to compensation from his UM/UIM carrier. Lane v. Montgomery, 2007 Tenn. App. LEXIS 427, at *12–13. (Tenn. Ct. App. June 28, 2007) (citing Gafford v. Caruthers, 1994 Tenn. App. LEXIS 441, at *6 (Tenn. Ct. App. Aug. 12, 1994)). Simply stated, if a plaintiff cannot recover from the tortfeasor-defendant motorist, he cannot recover against his UM/UIM carrier.

In Lane, the plaintiff was involved in a three-vehicle motor vehicle accident. Id. at *1. Within the one-year statute of limitations, the plaintiff filed a complaint against the defendant, whom she believed to have caused her injuries. Id. Moreover, the plaintiff also served the complaint on her UM/UIM carrier. Id. In his answer and discovery responses, the defendant stated that he was not involved in the motor vehicle accident, as alleged by the plaintiff. Id. at *1–2. Consequently, the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant were dismissed via summary judgment. Id. at *2.

Following the defendant’s successful motion for summary judgment, twenty-six months after the motor vehicle accident, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint, substituting a “John Doe” in place of the defendant. Id. In response, the plaintiff’s UM/UIM carrier filed a motion for summary judgment claiming that, because the plaintiff’s claims against John Doe were barred by the statute of limitations, her claims against it likewise could not succeed. Id. The trial court agreed and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims. Id. On appeal, the Tennessee Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment for the UM/UIM carrier. Id.

On appeal, the Lane plaintiff relied upon the “relation-back” provisions of Rule 15.03 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure in an attempt to preserve her cause of action against her UM/UIM carrier. Id. at *9. Specifically, the plaintiff argued that her UM/UIM carrier already had notice of her claims and its potential coverage for her injuries after being served with the original complaint. Id. In response, the Court of Appeals stated:

The plaintiff’s argument on this issue misses the mark. [Rule 15.03] refers to “the party to be brought in by amendment,” (emphasis added), and addresses notice to that party and knowledge of that party. The party to be brought in by the plaintiff’s amended complaint is “John Doe,” not [the UM/UIM carrier]. While no prejudice to [the UM/UIM carrier] appears on the face of the record, that is not the issue.

Id. at *11. Moreover, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the question was not whether the UM/UIM carrier had notice of the plaintiff’s lawsuit, but rather whether the plaintiff’s lawsuit against John Doe was time-barred. Id. at *14. Because her amended complaint against John Doe was time-barred, the plaintiff was unable to maintain her cause of action against her UM/UIM carrier. Id. Moreover, the Court of Appeals warned against the plaintiff’s interpretation of the UM/UIM motorist statute: “This statute cannot be read as providing a victim of an uninsured motorist with a more effective remedy against his own [UM/UIM] carrier than he would have against the uninsured motorist himself.” Id. at *13 (citing Gafford, 1994 Tenn. App. LEXIS 441, at *6–7).

In short, because the Lane plaintiff’s claims against “John Doe” were time-barred, she was therefore also unable to recover against her UM/UIM carrier. The claim against the UM/UIM carrier is dependent upon the viability and value of the underlying tort claim and the right to recover against the tortfeasor. The UM/UIM coverage provides insurance coverage if the tortfeasor is either uninsured or underinsured, but does not fully take the place of the tortfeasor. The claim against the tortfeasor must be viable to potentially make a recovery against a UM/UIM insurance policy.

Jake Strawn focuses on Insurance Defense Liability, Premises Liability, Products Liability and Workers’ Compensation in the Memphis, Tennessee office.

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