In my experience as a St. Louis motor vehicle accident attorney, auto insurance companies love to deny uninsured and underinsured motorist claims. Drivers make this type of claim when they are hit by an at-fault driver who doesn’t carry any insurance at all or doesn’t carry enough to cover all of the injuries he or she caused. In Country Preferred Insurance Co. v. Whitehead, the insurance company for Terry Whitehead of Will Country, Ill., filed suit seeking a court order saying it was not obligated to insure her for her uninsured motorist claim. Whitehead was hit by an at-fault driver in Wisconsin. She argued that enforcing a two-year deadline in her contract violated Illinois public policy because Wisconsin has a three-year deadline to sue, but the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed, saying the deadline in Illinois is also two years.
The accident took place in Wisconsin in July of 2007. Whitehead contacted Country to make a bodily injury claim under her uninsured motorist insurance in the fall of 2007. It’s not clear what happened, but in November of 2008—a year after Whitehead signed her claim form in the presence of a notary—Country contacted her about the open claim. Country contacted Whitehead again in February of 2009, and Whitehead retained an attorney who contacted Country to advise them of representation in May of 2009. In October of 2009, Whitehead’s attorney sent a demand letter. Country then filed for a declaratory judgment seeking a court order that it did not owe coverage to Whitehead, saying her insurance contract gave her two years from the date of an accident to file a lawsuit or bring arbitration, and she had missed that deadline.
The Illinois trial court agreed and denied Whitehead’s counterclaim seeking arbitration. But in an interlocutory appeal, the appellate court reversed, finding the two-year contractual deadline violates Illinois public policy because it’s shorter than the applicable deadline in the state where the accident took place, Wisconsin.
Country appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which reversed. There is no authority saying a two-year statute of limitations violates Illinois public policy, the court said; indeed, this particular contract has been reviewed by many Illinois courts. Whitehead argued that her case was different because it took place in a state with a longer statute of limitations, but the high court saw no reason to apply Wisconsin law to determine whether Illinois public policy had been violated. Rather, it said, the controlling issue was whether the contractual two-year time limit was adequate time for Whitehead to bring her claim. Nothing in the record suggests that it was not, the court said. The one case cited in the appellate court in support of her claim was distinguishable, the court said, because it involved a minor presumed to be legally incompetent until age 18 and thus subject to different rules. That case also did not involve another state’s laws, the high court noted. As a result, the majority said there was no violation of Illinois public policy. A dissent by Chief Justice Kilbride disagreed.
As a southern Illinois car crash lawyer, I am disappointed that the high court sided with the insurance company. Generally speaking, insurance contracts are written by insurance companies to suit insurance companies’ purposes. As much as they can while still complying with the law, these contracts exist to limit payments made by insurance companies as much as possible, because when they pay drivers as they agreed to, they lose money. This is why, in my work as a Missouri auto accident attorney, I always tell injured people to remember that insurance companies are not on their side; insurance companies’ interests are adverse to theirs. As the court’s opinion notes, the goal of uninsured motorist coverage is to put drivers in the same position they would be in if the at-fault driver had insurance. Allowing insurance companies to cut short the deadline to sue does not do that; they end up in a worse position.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients who are seriously injured or have lost a loved one because of someone else’s bad decisions behind the wheel. If you’d like to tell us your story and learn more about your legal rights, send us a message through our website or call us today at 1-877-678-3400 for a free consultation.
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