Tort actions brought due to motor vehicle accidents may be brought not only against the primary tortfeasor but also against the insured’s uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier. The claim must first be brought against the tortfeasor. We know that. The claim must be brought within the applicable one (1) statute of limitations. The uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier, if then “brought into” the case, must be served as required under the Rules of Civil Procedure and TCA 56-7-1206. Once served, the uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier has as much right to defend the lawsuit as the named defendant.
Auto insurance policies have provisions that provide for uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. Only when the insured elects to not carry uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, and signs acknowledging refusal to carry such coverage, will uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage not be part of the insured’s policy. Thus, the relationship between the uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier and the insured is based on a contractual relationship.
As mentioned above however, the tort claim must be brought within the applicable statute of limitations. In Tennessee, that’s one (1) year. And, it must be brought against the responsible party, if known, and not just the uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier. A valid claim against an uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier is contingent upon a valid claim against the tortfeasor (in other words, a suit timely filed). There is no direct cause of action against an uninsured/underinsured motorist carrier. Even in hit-and-run situations when the identity of the tortfeasor is unknown. In that event, a claim must be brought against the unidentified tortfeasor (a/k/a “John Doe”) within the applicable one-year statute of limitations. Thus, the uninsured/underinsured claim is also based on tort.
Insurers defending uninsured/underinsured causes of action need to always make sure the suit was filed timely. Insureds must make sure suit is timely filed against the correct party(s). While service may not always be perfected against the tortfeasor, the required efforts must still be made as proscribed under the Rules of Civil Procedure and TCA 56-7-1206.
Tommy Santel is a co-founding partner of Parkerson Santel Garner PLLC. Tommy is a former government prosecutor. He is a Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 General Civil Mediator. Tommy’s practice areas include criminal defense and civil litigation.
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