September 1, 2013

Uninsured drivers pose physical, fiscal hazards

Though Maine has a low percentage of people without insurance, hundreds of accidents each year testify to the dangers on the roads.

By MATT HONGOLTZ-HETLING Morning Sentinel

(Continued from page 1)

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Police images from Mike Lyons' 2008 accident show the damage to his vehicle, left, and the uninsured motorist's Jeep. The accident was the start of a long medical journey for Lyons, who is still angry about the accident.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

click image to enlarge

Mike Lyons holds a copy of an X-ray of his femur that was repaired after it was seriously injured in 2008.

David Leaming/Morning Sentinel

UNINSURED ACCIDENTS A CONSTANT PROBLEM

The toll from Maine's uninsured drivers is measured by more than money. Accidents involving uninsured drivers can cause years of bills, red tape and complications for other accident victims.

Accidents in Maine involving uninsured drivers:

2010: 219

2011: 229

2012: 234

2013: 172 as of Aug. 29

Source: Maine State Police Traffic Division

"We don't live in a community where people have a lot of disposable income," Jabar said.

The research council supports that, citing the recession as the cause for a national increase in uninsured drivers in 2008.

If people are under financial stress, insurance bills aren't as high a priority as grocery, rent or utility bills, which pay for immediate and continual needs.

Insurance becomes a priority only for those who own a house or car, Jabar said.

"If someone has assets, it's in their interest to be insured to protect those assets," he said.

This often results in added bad news for the victims of an accident involving an uninsured driver. If the driver carried no insurance, it's less likely that any property will be available to be taken for compensation for medical bills.

"Except in a very rare situation, the individual is not going to have the assets to cover the damages," Jabar said.

In one case, he won a $400,000 judgment against a driver who caused permanent injuries to his client.

"The driver he got a judgment against just filed for bankruptcy," he said. "We were never going to be able to collect anyway."

Karen Boston, a personal injury lawyer at Lipman & Katz, an Augusta-based firm, said victims are often left holding the bag.

"It can result in very unjust situations," she said.

Boston and Jabar both said the state minimum of $50,000 in insurance coverage is often not enough to cover the medical expenses that come with a serious accident, but that some coverage is better than none.

NO MONEY, PERMANENT HARM

Jabar said crash injuries cause permanent harm -- to avid hunters who can't hunt anymore, or parents who no longer can care adequately for their children -- to victims who can't have the quality of life they once led.

"It's hard to really understand what it's like until you or someone you're close to goes through that," he said.

When money can be tapped to pay for an accident's effects, federal law ensures the medical providers are first in line, resulting in what Jabar called "pass-through compensation."

Lyons said watching his own insurance money pass through his possession to pay off his medical bills was frustrating.

"I had a check in my hand for $100,000 and I had to sign it over," he said.

While he knows the bills are important, he said, there are other expenses associated with the accident that are equally important.

The loss of his job and income, four years of pain medication, the stress, the loss of his vehicle, the time and travel expenses -- are all borne by him and his wife.

"The accident was just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

Lyons, 65, still suffers the effects of the accident five years ago.

He can't work, which has cut the household income in half.

He used to enjoy traveling, but he fell when walking because the accident left one leg 11/2 inches shorter than the other. The lacerations caused by the accidents and the surgeries have healed but left scars. When he snapped the seat belt with his body, it injured his internal organs, resulting in continued problems with his bowels. In all, he has undergone nine surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage.

ACCOUNTABILITY

Lyons would like tougher penalties for those who drive without insurance. When a police officer finds an uninsured driver, he said, the driver shouldn't be allowed to continue down the road. Lyons would like the vehicle impounded unless it can be driven legally with insurance.

Jabar said the idea makes sense to him.

(Continued on page 3)

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