By Scott Lewis
I was stopped in traffic when I heard that dreaded crunching sound and my neck snapped backward into the headrest.
It was a sound I’d heard before. My car was just rear-ended for the second time in two years. This time it was a conversion van that ran into the back of a pickup truck and pushed the truck into my car. The driver of the van that caused the accident had no insurance.
This has become an everyday occurrence in Michigan. Uninsured drivers are everywhere and they’re getting into accidents, costing you money in higher insurance premiums. And depending on the coverage you have on your own car, uninsured drivers can put you at great risk if they hit you and cause a catastrophic injury.
I’ll tell you more about that risk and what you can do to protect yourself for just pennies a day. First, let me give you some troubling statistics.
Michigan is seventh in the nation when it comes to uninsured drivers according to the most recent study done in 2011 by the Insurance Research Council. The study found that one out of five drivers, nearly 20 percent are on the road with no insurance.
And the numbers are undoubtedly much higher in the city of Detroit, according to Peter Kuhnmuench, executive director of the Insurance Institute of Michigan.
“I’ve heard it bandied about as high as 50 percent in the city. And there are reasons for that. Obviously urban areas tend to be where the less fortunate congregate and they’ve got less income to pay on an insurance premium. That’s also complicated by the fact that it costs a lot more to insure a vehicle in a major metropolitan area,” Kuhnmuench said.
Don Pierce, owner of Donald K. Pierce & Company, an independent insurance agency in Grosse Pointe, agrees that uninsured drivers are a bigger problem in lower-income areas.
“I hate to put it this way, but I suppose if you drove too long in the city of Detroit, you’d have a better chance of being hit by an uninsured driver than of you hitting someone,” Pierce said.
My accident happened in downtown Pontiac. My car was banged up pretty good and my neck was a little sore. Fortunately I was not seriously hurt.
But right around the time of my accident, I was doing private investigative work for Detroit attorney Ven Johnson on an uninsured driver case that was much more serious. Johnson was representing a man who was hit by an uninsured driver and suffered catastrophic injuries. His story is a real eye-opener. And when you hear it, you’ll probably be pulling out your own insurance policy to check your coverage.
Charlie Cilli, 61, was at a green light waiting to make a left turn on Nine Mile Road in Ferndale when an uninsured driver plowed into the back of his company owned pickup truck. Johnson says the driver who hit Cilli never touched the brakes. Cilli was hit so hard that the truck was totaled and the impact shattered the rear window.
“My client was wearing his eyeglasses. His head snapped back. The force of the accident was so bad that his eyeglasses went backwards through the broken window into the bed of the truck,” Johnson said.
Celli was sent to a clinic. They determined he had a bruise on his forehead and a sore neck. The next day he went back for a CAT scan and they discovered he also had a concussion. But the nightmare was just beginning.
Three days after the crash, Celli started having hallucinations. He was rushed to the hospital where they discovered he had severe internal bleeding in the abdomen. He was rushed into surgery. Cilli wound up in a coma for four months. His liver, kidneys and lungs were all failing. He spent a year recuperating with therapy.
With Michigan’s no fault insurance, Celli’s medical bills will be paid for life, regardless of the fact that an uninsured driver hit him. That goes for all of us, and it’s a major reason why insurance rates are so high in Michigan.
But here’s the rub — something you really need to know. If you don’t have uninsured motorist protection on your car insurance policy, and you get hit by an uninsured driver, you can’t collect a dime from the insurance company for what’s known as pain and suffering. You could sue the driver, but how much are you going to get from someone who can’t even afford insurance?
Celli will never be able to work again and he can’t enjoy the life he once had. Fortunately, both he and his company had uninsured motorist coverage on their insurance policies. Johnson sued both companies and a jury awarded Celli $2.5 million to compensate him for his pain, suffering and economic losses.
“That’s why it was such a significant verdict is because the jury clearly believed that my guy was incredibly messed up, which he was, and is,” said Johnson.
Based on his years of experience with cases like this, Johnson says there’s a lesson in it for all of us.
“You absolutely must get as much uninsured and underinsured coverage as you can possibly afford to get.”
Insurance agent Don Pierce recommends $500,000 in coverage for both uninsured and underinsured drivers, and he says that most people who do have uninsured motorist coverage don’t have enough.
“If I ran a stop sign and you lost an arm and a leg, would you be happy with $20,000? Because that’s what a lot of people carry on uninsured motorists,” Pierce said.
The coverage is relatively inexpensive. I have the $500,000 coverage Pierce recommends. That coverage costs me $50 per year. That’s less than 14 cents a day to make sure I’ll be compensated if an uninsured driver changes my life forever.
So what do we do about all those drivers running around without insurance? I can certainly sympathize with someone who truly can’t afford Michigan’s high insurance rates. But there have to be some folks out there who don’t buy car insurance because they choose to spend the money on something else.
Some say it’s time to toughen the penalties for driving without insurance.
“Driving around without insurance in this state is a $100 misdemeanor. Many believe that’s not an adequate deterrent for getting people insured. The other side of that argument is that the cost of insurance, particularly in urban areas is so high that you’re forcing people to become criminals by running around uninsured,” Kuhnmuench said.
As for the driver who hit Charlie Cilli, it was the second time he’d been cited for driving with no license and no insurance. He spent a year in jail for the crash that severely injured Cilli.
And what was my role in the Cilli civil suit?
Ven Johnson inherited the case from another attorney who never deposed the offending driver to get it on the record that he was uninsured. A few days before the trial, Johnson says attorneys for the insurance companies through him a big curve. They said they would move to have the case thrown out if the offending driver didn’t come to court and testify that he didn’t have insurance.
The problem was that nobody knew where to find him.
The driver had just gotten out of jail days earlier and he was not living at the address listed in the court file. I used everything I have in my bag of tricks, located the driver and served him just in the nick of time.
“Your hard work, brother, really bailed me out. So I appreciate you very much,” Johnson said.
Now, I’d appreciate it if you would do something for yourself. Go check your insurance policy. You might decide you want to spend a few bucks extra for insurance so you’ll be covered if, God forbid, you end up living Charlie Cilli’s nightmare.
Veteran TV investigative reporter Scott Lewis is now in private practice. Scott Lewis Private Investigations is a premier, full service agency serving the state of Michigan. If you need private investigation services, contact Scott at 1-855-411-Lewis (5394), email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.scottlewispi.com.