Spoon Gordon Ballew Attorneys at Law, PC Blog Post

Ridley and DuBray: When Liability is Reasonably Clear

“I was in a car wreck that was not my fault. The insurance company is saying they’ve determined their insured is 80% at fault, so they will pay me 80% of my medical bills and 80% of my property damage. Is that legal?”

In Montana, insurance companies have certain obligations to injured parties that begin when liability is “reasonably clear.” For example, if you are rear ended, liability is reasonably clear because the driver who hit you was failing to drive in a way that would avoid injuring members of the general public. That driver failed to drive carefully which caused the accident.

When liability is reasonably clear (or when an insurance company admits liability), obligations we refer to as Ridley and DuBray are triggered. Ridley obligations (named after a Montana Supreme Court case) require an insurer to pay those medical expenses not reasonably in dispute that are caused by the accident in advance of settlement. Nothing in Ridley limits the expenses the insurer has to pay to the percentage the insurer believes its insured was at fault. DuBray is another Supreme Court case that imposes the same requirements that Ridley does, but to other undisputed expenses like lost wages.

The bottom line is that Ridley and DuBray require insurance companies to compensate people injured by their insured for expenses that are not in dispute, and requires the insurer to do so before the case has settled. An insurer whose insured is liable for damages is not permitted to offset how much it must pay for medical expenses or lost wages (or property damage) by what it believes to be your percentage of fault.

For example, if an insurer says their insured is liable, but that you share some of the fault (let’s say 20%), some states permit an insurer to pay you 80% of your undisputed damages. Montana is different. Comparative fault (your share of the responsibility for the accident) is dealt with at the time of settlement. Ridley and DuBray apply to an insurer’s obligations before settlement and do not permit an offset. The logic behind these cases makes sense. If someone else causes you to lose wages or incur medical expenses, and their liability for your losses is reasonably clear, you should not have to wait months or years with outstanding medical bills or lost wages.