What Is a Phantom Vehicle?

truck in ditch after being run off road

Let's toss out all notions involving a spirit-possessed vehicle. This FAQ won't be about that love bug Herbie, Hasseloff's KITT, the killer "Christine," or any Autobots and Decepticons.

Rather, a "phantom vehicle" is traffic-safety legalese that appears in uninsured/underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) car insurance claims.

Such claims typically involve an unidentifiable vehicle-called a phantom vehicle-that either causes the insured driver to crash without actually causing a collision or causes a hit-and-run accident.

Here's a hypothetical situation to illustrate when a phantom vehicle might come into play:

Imagine you're going eastbound down a two-lane highway. Not too far ahead are two cars driving westbound toward you in the opposite lane.

The driver in the rear car illegally pulls into your lane to try to pass the car in front of it. Without enough time to speed up and pass the other car, that lane-changing car leaves you with no option but to move to the right to avoid a head-on collision.

But there's no shoulder and you end up in a ditch, damaging your car and injuring yourself. In this situation, the car who pulled into your lane and ran you off the road would be considered a phantom vehicle. The driver didn't hit you, but he's still the one who caused the accident, and you may be able to collect compensation under your UM/UIM coverage as a result.

However, you'll still need to prove that a phantom vehicle was involved in your claim and report the crash to authorities and your insurers in a timely manner.

What Kind of Evidence Does a Phantom Vehicle Leave?

Sure, an insurer demanding evidence that a phantom vehicle caused your crash may seem like a high legal hurdle to leap.

But there's plenty of precedent-and we'll lay it out for you here.

In Washington State, a phantom vehicle claim has to be backed by "competent evidence" or a witness statement independent of the policyholder or UM claim.

Of course, as all "Law and Order" fanatics know, physical evidence trumps all.

According to attorney Barry Edzant in California, a phantom vehicle claim will prompt an insurance investigation that will seek out physical evidence like "paint transfers or other damage to your vehicle which would prove an actual contact."

In Texas, there's a higher hurdle to leap when it comes to contact with the phantom vehicle.

According to attorney Earl Drott: "If you get run off the road in Texas you're going to have to either identify the other vehicle or have physical damage to your vehicle from contact with the other vehicle or you are not going to be able to assert an uninsured motorist claim."

The bar might be a bit lower in Oregon, where, according to Joshua Shulman, a personal injury attorney based in the Beaver State, "Hopefully there's a witness, [but] some skid marks on the road can sometimes do it."

His practice, Shulman DuBois LLC, also offers this handy blog entry about phantom vehicle claims.

The Clock Ticks in Phantom Vehicle Claims

Generally, states enforce time windows for a policyholder to report that a phantom vehicle was involved in his or her crash.

In 2011, the Wisconsin Office of the Commissioner of Insurance announced changes to insurance law defining phantom vehicles and reporting deadlines for crashes they cause. Wisconsin requires that:

  • "Within 72 hours after the accident, the insured or someone on behalf of the insured reports the accident to a police, peace, or judicial office or to the department of transportation."

  • "Within 30 days after the accident occurs, the insured or someone on behalf of the insured files with the insurer a statement under oath" regarding the crash.

So there you have it, Wisconsinites. After a crash, you have three days to tell authorities and a month to tell your car insurer under oath.

The same goes for Oregonians. According to the Oregon State Bar, phantom vehicles must be reported to authorities within 72 hours and your insurer within 30 days.

As with most car insurance-related laws, the specifics of laws governing phantom vehicles vary from state to state (we're not all cheeseheads/ducks).

For example, the Washington State Legislature notes that phantom vehicle-caused crashes need to be reported to authorities within 72 hours, but mentions no deadline for a policyholder to report the accident to an insurer.

Though abiding by state law might ensure your claim isn't rejected outright, reporting a phantom vehicle as soon as possible might better your chances of a claim payout.

Oregon-based attorney Joe Di Bartolomeo says ASAP is exactly the right mindset to have, though reporting restrictions are still "a pretty tight timeline for an injured party."

"I have often found myself scrambling to preserve a claim when the injured party contacts me at the last minute," he said in a blog entry. "It's a good idea to confirm the time limits to preserve these claims with the claims adjuster as soon as possible."

So check with your state insurance regulator for details on how much time you have to report a phantom vehicle.

Time Limits, Evidence Play into Phantom Vehicle Court Cases

If you want some real-life examples of how important timing and evidence are when reporting a phantom vehicle, you won't have to flip very far back into any archives.

The term phantom vehicle appeared in November 2013 in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, which ruled on a UM/UIM claim from a policyholder who rear-ended a driver. That policyholder claimed the crash was caused by a phantom vehicle that had suddenly pulled in front of the driver he rear-ended and caused the entire collision.

The case made it up to the Supreme Court after the insurer claimed it "suffered prejudice" in the policyholder's late reporting of the phantom vehicle.

In 2011, a phantom vehicle was at the center of a case about auto insurance in Washington State, where an appeals court ruled against a couple who alleged they were due UM/UIM benefits. The couple said they were forced into a "sudden avoidance maneuver" that led to a crash when an oncoming car drove partly into their lane.

The court denied their claim because the couple lacked "physical evidence" of the phantom vehicle.

Photo courtesy of The Medina-Gazette