Uninsured motorist insurance will cover you if an uninsured driver crashes into you. It will even cover you if you're the victim of a hit-and-run. Sometimes, however, another motorist may cause you to crash without actually making contact with your vehicle. Maybe the motorist swerves unexpectedly, forcing you off the road and into a tree -- and then flees the scene. There's no proof that you didn't just get distracted and drive into the tree yourself.
In such cases, the other car is called a "phantom vehicle." Depending on your state's laws, you might not be covered.
Physical contact laws
In some states, physical contact (proof that the other vehicle actually hit yours) is required for uninsured motorist claims. The California Insurance Code, for example, states that an accident victim can make an uninsured motorist bodily injury claim only when "the bodily injury has arisen out of physical contact of the automobile with the insured or with an automobile that the insured is occupying."
California has a history of interpreting this law quite literally, according to San Francisco law firm Stimmel Stimmel and Smith. In an analysis of California's phantom vehicle law on its website, the firm describes the case of a driver who got into an accident after swerving to avoid an unidentified car. He sued his insurer when it didn't pay the claim, and the California Supreme Court sided with the insurance company, despite the fact that witnesses' accounts agreed with the plaintiff's. Because the other car never hit the plaintiff's, it was technically the plaintiff's negligence that led to the accident.
Corroborating evidence laws
Some states allow uninsured motorist claims even when no physical contact has occurred -- as long as there is corroborating evidence that the phantom car caused the accident. Typically, this evidence comes in the form of eyewitness testimony. State law in Washington, for example, allows for uninsured motorist claims as long as someone who witnessed the accident (other than the insured) can confirm the insured's story.
For example, a Washington couple lost a lawsuit against Farmers Insurance in 2011 for precisely this reason. The couple claimed that they had no choice but to swerve off the road when another car suddenly entered their lane. But they were not able to provide any eyewitnesses to back up their story.
Phantom cars and multivehicle crashes
Things can get complicated when a phantom car causes a multivehicle crash. If your uninsured motorist coverage won't pay, the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance recommends filing a claim under your collision coverage if you have it. Or you may be able to file a claim against the insurance company of the car that actually struck you, even if that car was only trying to get out of the path of a phantom vehicle.
Other insurance options
If you live in a no-fault insurance state, you may be able to sidestep the issue altogether. In no-fault states, motorists make bodily injury claims through their own insurers, regardless of who's at fault.
If you don't live in a no-fault state, you still can get insurance that protects you from phantom vehicles. Personal injury protection and medical payments coverage (depending on what your insurer offers) both provide coverage for medical bills, regardless of who caused the accident. Collision coverage, meanwhile, will cover repairs to your car, whether it's a phantom vehicle or your own negligence that caused you to hit a tree.