How much auto liability insurance do I need?

How much liability do you need and what does it cover?

After talking with many different people about their insurance, I have discovered some pretty scary things! Most people don't know how much coverage they have and most of the time they also don't realize that they are under-insured! This is a serious problem that can have detrimental effects on anyone at anytime. After seeing the need to educate people more on insurance and their financial well-being, I have decided to write a series of articles that deal with insurance terms, coverage and misconceptions and hopefully shed some light on what people have so long misunderstood.

This article is going to focus on Auto Liability Insurance. There are two terms that people use the most when dealing with Autos....Full Coverage and Liability. Technically, there is no such thing as full coverage but that is a whole different issue and I will address that in a different article. Let's get into the matter at hand....Liability insurance. Here is how auto insurance is usually handled. A person will get quotes from several different agents (or maybe just one), and usually selects the cheapest rate, because after all, we are a price driven society. After that, he/she gets a verification and then that person is legal to drive. This is where things go terribly wrong!

Let's take a step backward. Some people may actually know how much coverage they have on their vehicle right now, but I would say that over 90% of the people that I have talked to do not know how much coverage they have…. they just know that they are insured! Let's see how not knowing your insurance coverage could end up being a major problem. In order to know how much coverage you have, you have to know what the liability figures mean. The most commonly used figures are: 25/50/25, 50/100/50, 100/300/100, and 250/500/250. Different states have different laws and minimum coverage amounts. In Oklahoma, the state minimum liability is 25/50/25 and that is what I will be dealing with in this article. I have encountered this coverage more than any other so far when switching people's insurance over to one of my carriers, and it is frightening to me of how many people there are out there with state minimum coverage! The first two numbers (25/50) go together and they cover the bodily injury for the other party (the one not at fault) and the last 25 is for their property damage (remember that this is liability, which only covers the other car that you hit…not yours). The first 25 means that $25,000 is the maximum amount payable per person/per occurrence(accident). The 50 means that $50,000 is the maximum payable amount for bodily injury per occurrence. The last 25 covers property damage and it means that $25,000 is the maximum payable amount (again…for the other car and not yours). Let's put this into a hypothetical situation and see how someone with 25/50/25 would be way under-insured.

I want you to image that you are the one in this situation, so I will use the word "you" in my example.Let's say you are driving and you hit and completely total a new Cadillac Escalade carrying 4 passengers, and you are the one at fault in the accident. Fortunately, you were uninjured, but all four people in the Escalade were injured and have to go to the hospital for extended stays. Passenger 1 has $50,000 in hospital bills, passenger 2 has $25,000, passenger 3 has $75,000, and passenger 4 has $100,000. Anyone who has had dealings with a hospital knows that it doesn't take long to add up to these kinds of figures. So how will your insurance company handle these claims? Basically, since you only had 25/50/25 then your insurance company will pay a maximum amount of $25,000 per person and $50,000 total for everyone combined! The problem is that the total bodily injury was $200,000. This means that the injured parties will be $150,000 short on getting their bills paid because you only have a total of $50,000 available. Guess what happens next? The injured parties get good lawyers to sue you for the balance! That is enough money to wipe out just about anyone financially. We can't stop here though…we still have to deal with the totaled Escalade. Right now, Cadillac Escalades cost upwards of $70,000. Since you only had $25,000 in property damage coverage, then again you will come up short and they will come after you personally for the balance. In this case, $45,000 is what you would be short.

So now, with the bodily injury and the property damage combined, you could be sued for $195,000. Most people do not have that just laying around at their house. How could this have been avoided? For starters, it is the responsibility of your insurance agent to inform you on your coverage and the risks involved and to see whether or not you are covered properly. In this example, 100/300/100 would have been the minimum amount of coverage that you would have needed to pay the medical bills and property damage amount. This coverage would cover up to $100,000 per person max which, in this case, would be enough. It also covers up to $300,000 for total bodily injury combined which, in this case, would be enough because the total bodily injury was $200,000. Lastly, the $100,000 would have been sufficient to cover the vehicle that was in the $70,000 range.

Seeing how these things work should make everyone take a second look at his/her coverage, just to make sure that they are not under-insured! It is true that people can still come back and sue you, even if your insurance covers all of the bills. The only way to truly be prepared for a big lawsuit like that is to have Umbrella insurance, but that is a whole different subject that I will discuss in a different article. Insurance is to cover incidents that may or may not ever occur… the best thing that you can do is buy the most coverage that you can and hope that you don't become an under-insured statistic. Raising your liability limit is not as expensive as one might imagine. I have seen examples in quotes where the difference was around $25 to $35 more a year to go from 25/50/25 to 50/100/50 when quoting with the same carrier! These are only examples and will be different from person to person as well as differing between carriers. I have also seen where someone would have 25/50/25 with one carrier and could get 50/100/100 with a completely different carrier and their premium was less money! Again not all carriers are equal on pricing….which is why it is good to get quotes with several different carriers before choosing whom you want to go with.

So, in a nutshell, there is not an exact amount on how much liability insurance a person needs. As you have now read, having enough insurance to be legal and having enough insurance to keep you financially sound don't always go hand in hand. Nobody can predict what is going to happen from day to day. All that we know is that there is a chance that something bad can happen to anyone at anytime. We just have to make a conscious decision on whether or not we want to take the risk of being under-insured and live with the consequences in the event that things don't go as expected.