William and Madison Jones appealed the dismissal of their case in favor of an insurance company concerning the amount of uninsured motorist (“UM”) coverage in a policy it issued to their father who was killed in a car accident.
The plaintiffs argued that the trial court erred in granting partial summary judgment to the insurance company because Georgia statutes set the limit of UM coverage at an amount equal to a policy’s liability coverage unless the insured affirmatively selects a lower limit, which they claimed the father didn’t do.
In January 2015, the plaintiffs’ father visited his insurance agent and made modifications to his policy. He signed his name under the following statement:
I affirmatively choose Uninsured Motorist Limits in an amount less than the Limit of Liability for Bodily Injury and Property Damage Coverage.
There was no question he wanted UM coverage in an amount less than the policy’s liability limit, but the signature page didn’t provide him with an option to select the specific amount of UM coverage he wanted. Nevertheless, the policy did note that it “contain[ed]” a declaration page with certain information, including the “Coverage and Amount of Insurance,” which showed that he had a $ 1,000,000 liability limit for bodily injury per person and $25,000 in UM coverage. And after the father updated his policy in 2015, the insurance company sent him periodic notices of those selections.
In the spring of 2016, while covered by his policy, he was killed in an auto accident.
During the litigation after the accident, the insurance company moved for partial summary judgment, seeking a declaratory judgment to establish the amount of UM coverage provided in the policy. Specifically, the insurance company contended that the father affirmatively chose $25,000 in UM coverage for bodily injury per person, as reflected on the policy’s declaration page. The plaintiffs argued that their father selected that amount, and that the Georgia UM statute required the insurance company to pay that UM benefit as the policy’s limits on liability. However, the trial court granted the insurer’s motion, finding that the father affirmatively chose $ 25,000 in UM coverage limits when he executed his policy with the insurance company in 2015.
The plaintiffs claimed on appeal that the father never affirmatively chose $ 25,000 in UM coverage for bodily injury, as required by OCGA § 33-7-11(a)(1)(B), and thus, the UM statute dictated that the amount of his UM coverage is equal to the policy’s $1,000,000 liability limits.
What Does Georgia’s UM Statute Say?
Georgia’s UM statute, OCGA § 33-7-11, among other things, requires insurers to “provide UM coverage in automobile insurance policies unless the insured rejects the coverage in writing.” And before a statutory amendment in 2001, insurers were “required only to provide UM coverage at a statutory minimum level, unless the insured requested greater coverage in writing.” However, after the 2001 amendment, OCGA § 33-7-11(a)(1)(A) and (B) require that an insurer provide “either the mandatory minimum UM coverage in the amount of $ 25,000 per person (or $ 50,000 per accident), or optional UM coverage in an amount equal to the liability coverage in the insured’s underlying policy.” Finally, while the 2001 amendment permits an insured to “affirmatively choose [UM] limits in an amount less than the limits of liability,” it was meant “to make a policy’s liability limits the default provision for UM coverage in the absence of an affirmative election of UM coverage in a lesser amount.”
Also, with an insured’s rejection of UM coverage, their choice of UM coverage in an amount less than liability limits doesn’t need to be in writing. Nevertheless, the lack of a writing requirement doesn’t absolve an insurer of its duty to show the insured made an affirmative choice of lesser coverage supporting their position that the lesser coverage should be enforced instead of the statutory default coverage. And again, in the absence of an affirmative choice, the default amount of UM coverage under an insurance policy is in an amount equal to the limit of liability coverage.
OCGA § 33-7-11 (a) (1) (A)-(B) provides:
(a)(1) No automobile liability policy or motor vehicle liability policy shall be issued or delivered in this state to the owner of such vehicle or shall be issued or delivered by any insurer licensed in this state upon any motor vehicle then principally garaged or principally used in this state unless it contains an endorsement or provisions undertaking to pay the insured damages for bodily injury, loss of consortium or death of an insured, or for injury to or destruction of property of an insured under the named insured’s policy sustained from the owner or operator of an uninsured motor vehicle, within limits exclusive of interests and costs which at the option of the insured shall be:
(A) Not less than $ 25,000.00 because of bodily injury to or death of one person in any one accident, and, subject to such limit for one person, $ 50,000.00 because of bodily injury to or death of two or more persons in any one accident, and $ 25,000.00 because of injury to or destruction of property; or
(B) Equal to the limits of liability because of bodily injury to or death of one person in any one accident and of two or more persons in any one accident, [*8] and because of injury to or destruction of property of the insured which is contained in the insured’s personal coverage in the automobile liability policy or motor vehicle liability policy issued by the insurer to the insured if those limits of liability exceed the limits of liability set forth in subparagraph (A) of this paragraph. In any event, the insured may affirmatively choose uninsured motorist limits in an amount less than the limits of liability.
In this case, the Court of Appeals was asked to consider whether the father affirmatively chose UM limits in an amount less than the limits of liability in his insurance policy, and if so, what specific amount of UM coverage he selected. And while the father wasn’t statutorily required to make an affirmative choice in writing, there was no question that he did so.
Importantly, because his statement was unambiguous and tracked the language in OCGA § 33-7-11(a)(1)(B) almost verbatim, there could be no judicial interpretation, the judge opined. So, at a minimum, regardless of the specific amount of UM coverage the father selected, the record conclusively showed that he wanted an amount less than the policy’s limits of liability. Therefore, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s grant of partial summary judgment to the insurance company. Jones v. Ga. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co., 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 106 (Ga. App. March 1, 2023).
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