Six-Year Statute of Limitations & Uninsured Motorist Carriers
If you’re in a motor vehicle accident (e.g. car wreck), often your own policy will have uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage (UM/UIM). The law relating to UM insurance coverage, Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1206, can be found here. UM/UIM coverage may apply when an at-fault driver doesn’t have any auto insurance, or if the at-fault driver doesn’t have enough insurance coverage to cover your damages and you have more insurance coverage than they do. There are several quirky situations where UM/UIM coverage may come into play such as hit and run accidents, accidents caused by debris, and phantom vehicle accidents.
When suing an at-fault driver in a motor vehicle accident, you typically must file the case within one year of the accident date. You then have to serve the at-fault driver with the suit. Sometimes, it’s hard to find and serve the at-fault driver defendant. Depending on the facts of the case, you may also serve your UM/UIM carrier with the suit.
In a recent case decided by the Tennessee Court of Appeals (Bates v. Greene ruling here), an accident victim brought suit in general sessions court against the at-fault driver stemming from a May 2011 car accident. The plaintiff filed suit, but had trouble serving the defendant, despite multiple attempts. The plaintiff did not initially sue and serve the UM carrier. More than two years after the accident, the Plaintiff filed an amended civil warrant (general sessions suit) naming the UM carrier. The insurance company filed a motion to dismiss claiming the one-year statute of limitations had passed. Plaintiff countered that the six-year breach of contract statute of limitations applied to UM carriers. The general sessions court ruled for the Plaintiff, then on appeal, the circuit court ruled for the insurance company, and the case was appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals ruled that the six-year statute of limitations applies to actions against the UM carrier. The court based its ruling on a Tennessee case decided in 1966, which you can read here. Basically, the court said this issue had already been decided in 1966, despite the UM insurance company’s argument that Tenn. Code Ann. § 56-7-1206 superseded the 1966 case. This ruling may seem a little counter-intuitive, given plaintiff lawyers’ strict adherence to the one-year statute of limitations framework. However, the bottom line is if you file timely and diligently attempt to serve the at-fault defendant, you can still bring suit against the UM carrier even if it’s more than a year after the date of the accident.