Sorting through auto insurance coverage in the event of a crash can be a complex process under any circumstance, but it can be especially challenging in cases involving “phantom vehicles.”
These are cases where one vehicle crashes, but another unidentified vehicle is alleged to have been the cause. Phantom vehicle cases can be difficult with regard to collection of uninsured motorist benefits because insurance companies often require some degree of independent confirmation (aside from the claimant’s testimony) that another vehicle was to blame.
Uninsured motorist benefits in hit-and-run cases are much more straightforward because it’s obvious another vehicle was involved due to the damage done by that vehicle upon impact – even if that other vehicle driver is never identified or located. However in phantom vehicle cases, there is usually an allegation of a vehicle being run off the road. But without evidence of impact or fault, it can be tough to prove.
Such was the case in Wadeer v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co. This was a matter weighed by the New Jersey Supreme Court, but only after both a mediator and trial court determined the insurer should pay uninsured motorist benefits for a crash attributed to a “phantom vehicle.”
According to court records, plaintiff suffered severe injuries in a single-vehicle crash when he alleges he was run off the road by another car whose driver never stopped. No one else witnessed the crash.
He had a $100,000 uninsured motorist coverage policy with his own auto insurer, but the insurance company refused to tender any amount to him. The case went to an arbitration panel, as the policy required, and the panel deemed the phantom vehicle 70 percent responsible for the crash, and awarded plaintiff $87,500. But insurer still refused to pay, and demanded a trial. Plaintiff attorney warned such action was a measure of bad faith on the part of the insurer, but insurer remained steadfast.
The case went to trial, where jurors found phantom vehicle to be 100 percent liable for the crash, and awarded plaintiff more than $222,000 for both pain and suffering and lost wages. Trial judge reduced that amount to $100,000, the total amount of plaintiff’s UM policy. Plaintiff argued the full award should be granted on grounds defendant insurer had acted in bad faith in refusing to pay the award initially ordered at arbitration. Trial court ruled insurer had not acted in bad faith because at that time it still had “fairly debatable reasons” to deny the claim.
Plaintiff filed a separate action asserting bad faith against the insurance company, but the state supreme court ultimately ruled this action was barred under the doctrine of res judicata, which basically means courts can’t weigh the same issue twice. Here, trial court already ruled defendant hadn’t acted in bad faith, and that was to be the last word on the matter.
Still, plaintiff did secure his UM policy limits for injuries he sustained as a result of a “phantom vehicle,” proving here again that such claims can be successful with proper legal representation.
Call Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, Attorneys for the Injured, at 1-800-646-1210.
Wadeer v. N.J. Mfrs. Ins. Co., Feb. 18, 2015, New Jersey Supreme Court
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