Understanding Auto Insurance

WCJEF Publication Link: Understanding Auto Insurance.pdf

The Wisconsin Civil Justice Education Foundation, Inc. provides this document as a public service to the insurance consumers of Wisconsin. It is intended to alert consumers to important changes that occur with your automobile insurance policy.  This document does not provide legal advice; always speak to a lawyer if you have a legal question or if you have been hurt in an accident. 

The WCJEF is determined to do everything in their power to advance the law, educate consumers about their rights, and assist injured people. This document represents an effort in that direction.  

State of Wisconsin, Office of the Commissioner of Insurance Consumer's Guide to Auto Insurance 

Publication link: Consumer Guide (18 pages)

Why Should You Buy Auto Insurance?

Insurance is based on the theory most drivers will not be involved in accidents. Premiums paid by all drivers during the year are used to pay for losses of the few drivers who have accidents. When you buy insurance, you receive financial protection in case you become involved in an accident. You also make sure a person injured through your fault will recover for losses you cause.

For example, if you are in an auto accident, you may be found responsible for losses of other people involved. A claim may be made or a lawsuit filed against you, and you may not only have to pay for property damage but also for medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering of any injured person. The amount of money you may have to pay could be substantial.

If you do not have insurance, anything of value you own, including your home, savings, future wages, and other assets, may be taken to pay for those losses. Auto liability insurance can help protect you so this does not happen. Liability insurance also pays for an attorney to defend you against any claim or lawsuit that may be payable under the policy.

You can also buy insurance to cover damages to your auto. This optional coverage will help pay for your losses whether or not you were at fault.

Components of Auto Insurance

There are many components of auto insurance including mandatory and optional coverage. Your policy must contain three    major parts—liability insurance for bodily injury, liability insurance for property damage, and uninsured motorist coverage. Optional coverage includes underinsured motorist, medical expense coverage, collision and comprehensive coverage.

Mandatory Auto Insurance Requirements

While many components of auto insurance have changed over the years, requiring all drivers have motor vehicle liability insurance remains mandatory. This requirement falls under the purview of the Department of Transportation, Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Wisconsin drivers are required to have an automobile insurance policy in force or, in limited situations, other security which could be a surety bond, personal funds, or certificate of self-insurance. Details are available from the Department of Transportation.

Your policy must provide at least the following minimum liability coverage:  

•  $25,000 for injury or death of one person; 

•  $50,000 for injury or death of two or more people; and

•  $10,000 for property damage.

Uninsured motorist coverage of at least $25,000/$50,000 each for bodily injury only is also mandatory.

Liability Insurance
When referring to liability limits, the designation of $50,000/$100,000/$15,000 (or 50/100/15) or similar designations refer to the maximum amounts an insurer will pay for three basic liability coverages. The first number ($50,000) refers to the limit on bodily injury payments coverage per person. The second number ($100,000) refers to the limit on bodily injury coverage per accident where two or more people have been injured. The third number ($15,000) refers to the limit on property damage coverage per accident.

Bodily Injury Liability Coverage does not protect you or your car directly. If you cause an accident injuring other people, it protects you against their claims up to the stated amounts for medical expenses, lost wages, pain and suffering, and other losses. It will also usually pay if the accident was caused by a member of your family living with you or a person using your auto with your consent.

Property Damage Liability Coverage pays for damage you cause to the property of others such as a crushed fender, broken glass, or a damaged wall or fence. Your insurance will pay for this damage if you were driving your auto or if it was being driven by another person with your consent. Property damage liability also pays if you damage government property like a light pole or signpost, up to the limit you choose.

Uninsured Motorist Coverage (UM)
Uninsured motorist coverage applies to bodily injury you, your family, and other occupants of your vehicle incur when hit by an uninsured motorist or a hit-and-run driver. It also covers you and your family if injured as a pedestrian when struck by an uninsured motorist or a hit-and-run driver. It protects you by making sure money is available to pay for your injuries caused by someone else. The minimum amount of coverage required by law is $25,000/$50,000 for bodily injury only. These coverages are the minimum required by law; you may want to purchase more than minimum coverage required by law if you feel the need for more protection. Uninsured motorist coverage does not cover your property damage and does not protect the other driver. Your insurer may sue the other driver for any money your insurer pays you because of the other driver’s negligence.

Underinsured Motorist Coverage (UIM)
Underinsured motorists (UIM) coverage increases the bodily injury protection to you and the people in your car up to the amount of coverage you purchase if the at-fault party’s bodily injury liability insurance limits are lower than your UIM coverage limits.

Underinsured motorist coverage is not mandatory. The insurer must notify you with the delivery of your policy that UIM coverage is available. You may reject buying UIM coverage. However, if purchased, coverage limits of at least $50,000 per person and $100,000 per accident are required.

You should carefully review your policy to determine exactly what coverage is provided by UIM.

Medical Payments Coverage
This coverage pays medical or funeral expenses for you or others injured or killed in an accident while riding or driving in your auto. This includes all reasonable hospital, surgical, chiropractic, x-ray, dental, professional nursing, prosthetic, and rehabilitation expenses up to the limits of coverage.

Medical payments coverage usually covers only those expenses not covered by health insurance, such as copayments, deductibles, etc. It will also cover you or members of your family if you are struck by an auto while walking or while riding in another auto. This coverage will pay for your medical and funeral expenses even if you cause the accident. Usually, only expenses incurred within one year after the accident are included. As an example, this coverage will provide benefits for a friend or a neighbor’s child injured in your car. Medical expense coverage is an optional coverage. Note: Insurance companies must offer this coverage to you, but you do not have to buy it. The minimum limit that can be purchased is $1,000.

Physical Damage Coverage
If you borrow money from a bank or some other financial institution to buy your car, the lender will probably require you to purchase physical damage coverage to protect both of your interests in the car.“Collision” and “Comprehensive” coverages, which are also known as physical damage coverages, pay for repair or the actual cash value of your auto regardless of who is at fault.

Comprehensive and collision premiums are based on the make, model, and year of your car. You should evaluate the current market value of your car and your ability to afford a similar car should it be destroyed before you purchase this coverage. You may not need this coverage if your car has decreased in value or if you can afford to replace it.

Collision coverage pays if your auto collides with an object, including another car or hit-and-run car, or if it overturns. Your own insurer will pay for such damage even if the collision is your fault.

Comprehensive coverage pays for damage to your auto from almost all other causes such as fire, vandalism, water, hail, glass breakage, wind, falling objects, civil commotion, or hitting an animal. Damage from striking a deer is a relatively frequent accident in Wisconsin. It is important to know most policies cover hitting an animal under comprehensive, not collision, insurance.Comprehensive coverage also pays if your auto or parts of it, such as a battery or tires, are stolen. Flood damage to your car is also covered if your auto insurance policy includes comprehensive coverage. If you carry collision without comprehensive coverage, you are not covered for flood damage.