After a car accident, the last thing you want is a denied insurance claim. Unfortunately, many victims face unwanted red tape, delays, and unreasonable denials. While a jury trial is sometimes necessary to resolve these issues, a declaratory judgment action may efficiently resolve coverage disputes.
In this blog, Fishwick & Associates explains the essentials of a Virginia declaratory judgment action and how it may help you streamline your personal injury claims.
What Is a Declaratory Judgment Action?
A declaratory judgment action asks the court to determine your legal rights. While businesses often request declaratory judgment actions, they can also be a powerful tool for people involved in insurance coverage disputes. The statutes governing declaratory judgment actions are found in Virginia Code §§ 8.01-184, et. seq.
When you file a declaratory judgment action, you’re asking the circuit court to make a binding determination about your rights under the written insurance policy. A declaratory judgment does not determine whether you are entitled to damages—it simply assesses your right to insurance coverage.
The key to bringing a declaratory judgment action is that there must be an actual controversy. Courts cannot issue advisory opinions, where they provide a legal opinion that is based on a hypothetical situation. Therefore, you cannot file a declaratory judgment action based on future or speculative claims—there must be an existing, specific, and adverse claim.
Why Do Insurance Companies Deny Coverage?
Depending on your circumstances, numerous insurance policies may apply to your car accident claim, including:
- Automobile liability coverage
- Uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage
- Medical Payments (Med-Pay) coverage
- Catastrophic liability (umbrella) policies
Ideally, the insurance companies will pay your car accident claims in a timely manner and offer fair compensation for your injuries and property damage. However, disputes sometimes arise.
After all, insurance companies are for-profit businesses. If they can deny coverage – and save themselves money – they will. Sometimes, the insurance company will claim that the policy does not cover your accident or argue that your claim is worth less due to language in the policy.
Insurance policies are contracts, and the parties are bound by the terms and conditions set forth in the document. However, the policy language is sometimes open to interpretation. Other times, it is vague or contradictory. In these cases, the insurance company may deny your claim because it misinterpreted the policy’s language.
How Do I Interpret My Insurance Policy Under Virginia Law?
As with all contracts, you must give the words within an insurance policy their plain meaning as written. However, contract interpretation isn’t always a simple process. Provisions in an insurance policy must be considered and construed together, and any internal conflicts between them must be harmonized, if reasonably possible, to realize the parties’ intent.
While insurers have an obligation to write clear and unambiguous policy language, especially if it excludes people from coverage, many policies include terms that are open to more than one interpretation. However, under Virginia law, ambiguous insurance policy language must be interpreted in favor of coverage and against the insurer.
How Can Car Accident Victims Use Declaratory Judgment Actions to Protect Themselves?
The Virginia Supreme Court has found that declaratory judgments are appropriate when there’s a question about your right to coverage after a crash. Typically, insurance companies use these actions as a tool to deny coverage. But in the hands of a skilled injury lawyer, you can turn the tables and use a declaratory judgment action to your advantage.
After a car accident, you may want to file a declaratory judgment action against an insurance company:
- The company claims that your claim is excluded or limited, but the provision is vague or ambiguous.
- There are contradictory clauses or provisions in the insurance policy.
- The plain language of the policy provides for coverage, but the insurer misinterprets its terms and conditions.
In these situations, a declaratory judgment action can help you determine the extent of your coverage.
Because you need all the help you can get after a catastrophic car accident, your legal team should explore all of your insurance coverage options. If an insurer denied coverage, then it may be worth filing a declaratory judgment action to determine if you’re entitled to compensation under the disputed policy.
At Fishwick & Associates, we always try to resolve coverage disputes through out-of-court negotiation. However, if coverage questions cannot be resolved through letters and discussions with the insurance company, then a declaratory judgment action may be your next option.
Fishwick & Associates: Fighting for Individuals Injured in Automobile Accidents
If you have been injured in an automobile accident in Virginia, Fishwick & Associates can help you understand your legal options, identify all the applicable insurance policies, and navigate your claims. Our sophisticated team of injury lawyers has extensive experience interpreting insurance policy language and can determine whether a declaratory judgment is right for you.
Virginia Farm Bureau Mutual Ins. Co. v. Williams, 278 Va. 75, 80, 677 S.E.2d 299 (2009).
Hill v. State Farm Mutual Auto. Ins. Co., 237 Va. 148, 375 S.E.2d 727 (1989).
St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co. v. S.L. Nusbaum & Co., Inc., 227 Va. 407, 316 S.E.2d 734 (1984).
Va. Code §§ 8.01-184, et. seq.
Reisen v. Aetna Life & Cas. Co., 225 Va. 327, 302 S.E.2d 529 (1983).
Mosher Steel-Virginia v. Teig, 229 Va. 95, 327 S.E.2d 87 (1985).
Bryant v. Selective Ins. Co., 82 Va. Cir. 188 (Charlottesville 2011).
Miller v. Highland Cty., 274 Va. 355, 370, 650 S.E.2d 532, 539 (2007).
The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.