Car accident personal injuries can range from devastating multi-car pileups with fatalities to fender benders with delayed soft tissue injuries. Regardless of the type of accident, FindLaw's section on Car Accidents contains helpful information and resources you can reference if you or a loved one has been involved in a car accident.
This article will cover the basics of car accident liability, including:
- First steps after an accident
- How to prove (or avoid) fault
- Car insurance claims
- Contributory negligence in car accident cases
- Tips on hiring a car accident attorney to help protect your legal rights
After an Accident
When a car accident happens, there are certain things you should do regardless of who was at fault. One of these things is documenting the accident. Documenting the accident can help ensure you are fairly compensated later on.
Documenting an accident includes:
- Calling the police
- Exchanging insurance policy information
- Obtaining witness statements
- Contacting your insurance company
- Taking pictures
- Getting property damage valuations
- Documenting your medical bills
- Documenting lost wages as a result of the accident
Actions you can take that reduce your liability include:
- Staying at the scene of the accident
- Exercising caution and restraint when discussing the incident
You can print FindLaw's pamphlet on the first steps after an auto accident. Store it in your car to help ensure that you don't create trouble and unnecessary expenses for yourself, miss an opportunity to gather evidence, or undermine your attempts to be compensated for an accident.
Proving Fault in a Crash
Insurance companies are interested in determining who was to blame for a car accident. They make that determination based on:
- The police officer's report of the incident
- State traffic laws
- Photographs or videos of the accident scene
- Witness statements
The Police Report
If a police officer responds to the scene of an accident, they will file an incident report, especially if there were injuries. The report includes their observations at the scene and whether either party received a citation. Getting a copy of the police report can help prove your version of events and help settle insurance disputes.
Once you have a copy of the report, you can also see if the report has any errors. Factual errors can be corrected if you have evidence that shows the officer was mistaken. Errors involving the officer's opinions can be more difficult to have removed or changed. Although, it's possible to add your statement to the record. You may call the officer and discuss your concerns about what was entered in the report. You may ask if they would consider making an amended report.
Talking to the Insurance Company
Auto insurance companies may ask to take your statement and record your answers. This is not to be taken lightly. You should be prepared for and careful about how you describe the incident. Write down what you think is important about the incident, and make sure it is added to the statement if the adjuster does not ask.
It is highly recommended that you consult with an attorney before agreeing to give a recorded statement. Remember that the statement may be used against you later if the case moves to a lawsuit.
State traffic laws, such as the right of way, can also impact fault determinations. Some kinds of accidents are also highly suggestive of fault.
Rear-end collisions are one example. If you are hit from behind, the other driver will generally be held responsible. Another example is when someone making a left turn gets hit. The party making the left turn will likely be held responsible in the case of an accident because the cars in the lane they cross generally have the right of way.
Another common scenario is where both drivers claim to have the green light. In intersection accidents controlled by stop lights, it is important that you clearly state you had the green light if that is the case. Witnesses and videos from businesses in the area are critical in these disputes. Most cities maintain records that will tell you the color of the light and time, which can be used to corroborate what happened.
No-Fault Insurance and Personal Injury Protection (PIP)
These 12 states have "no-fault" insurance laws in effect:
- New Jersey
- New York
- North Dakota
In these states, after a motor vehicle accident, each driver's own insurance coverage pays for their respective medical expenses and other losses (in certain cases). This can include funeral expenses if the death was caused by the accident or other services that you cannot perform because of injuries directly caused by the accident (i.e., household chores), regardless of who was at fault for the accident. This type of policy is also referred to as Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance.
Bodily Injury and Injury Claims
Under a no-fault system, bodily injury claims for minor injuries are generally made against your own insurance policy. However, if your injuries are severe, you may be able to make a claim against the at-fault driver's insurance policy. This is why it's essential to have liability insurance coverage. It can help protect you if you're found to be at fault in a car accident.
What Is Liability Insurance Coverage?
Liability insurance coverage is a component of your auto insurance policy that pays for injuries to the other party and damages to their vehicle when you're at fault in an accident. This coverage is typically split into two categories: bodily injury liability and property damage liability.
- Bodily injury liability: This coverage applies when you cause an accident and someone else is injured. It can cover the costs of medical expenses, loss of income, and pain and suffering of the injured party. It can also cover legal fees if the injured party decides to sue for damages.
- Property damage liability: This pays for damage that you cause to someone else's property. While this usually involves vehicle repair or replacement, it can also apply to other damaged properties, such as buildings, utility poles, and fences.
It's best to have liability insurance coverage for several reasons:
- Financial protection: It can be expensive if you are found to be at fault for an accident. Without adequate coverage, you could be personally responsible for these costs, potentially leading to financial hardship or even bankruptcy. With sufficient coverage, your insurance company will bear these costs up to your policy limits.
- Legal requirement: Driving without insurance or with insufficient coverage can lead to fines, license suspension, and even jail time in some cases.
- Protection from lawsuits: If you're at fault in a severe accident, the injured party may decide to sue for damages. Having sufficient liability coverage can help protect your assets, as your insurer would typically pay for any settlement or judgment up to your policy limits. You may also have a provision in your policy that covers legal costs and reasonable attorney's fees.
Liability insurance does not cover your own injuries or damage to your own vehicle. You'll need other types of coverage, such as collision, comprehensive, or PIP, for that.
Severe Injuries and Liability Coverage
In the event of a severe accident for which you are not at fault, you can make a claim against the at-fault driver's liability insurance. The at-fault driver's bodily injury liability coverage would be responsible for compensating you for your medical bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering.
However, if the at-fault driver's liability coverage isn't enough to cover your expenses and damages, you may need to resort to:
- Making a claim on your own underinsured motorist coverage (if you have it)
- Suing the at-fault driver personally
- Seeking compensation through the court system
A car accident lawyer can be particularly helpful in these situations. They can help you negotiate with insurance adjusters, determine the extent of the at-fault driver's liability, and ensure coverage of your medical expenses. A lawyer can also help in recovering compensation for vehicle damage.
What Is a Deductible?
Under no-fault insurance, a deductible is the amount of money you agree to pay out-of-pocket before your insurance coverage kicks in. Deductibles typically apply to collision and comprehensive coverage.
- Collision coverage: This pays for damage to your vehicle resulting from a collision with another vehicle or object when you're at fault.
- Comprehensive coverage: This covers damage to your vehicle caused by events other than a collision, such as fire, theft, vandalism, or natural disasters.
When you purchase an auto insurance policy, you choose a deductible amount. This could be $250, $500, $1,000, or more. The choice of a deductible often balances monthly premiums against out-of-pocket costs in the event of an accident.
A lower deductible means you'll pay less out-of-pocket if an accident happens, but your monthly insurance premiums will be higher. A higher deductible will result in lower monthly premiums, but you'll have to pay more out-of-pocket in case of an accident.
If you file a claim under your collision or comprehensive coverage, you'll be required to pay the amount of your deductible. For example, if you have a $500 deductible and $2,000 in damage to your vehicle, you will pay $500 and your insurance company will pay the remaining $1,500.
However, deductibles are per claim, not per year. This means that if you file two separate claims in a year, you will have to pay the deductible for each claim.
In no-fault states, PIP may also have a deductible. This would apply to your own medical expenses after an accident.
Deductibles do not apply to the liability portion of your auto insurance. If you are at fault in an accident, your liability insurance will cover the other party's losses up to your policy limits without a deductible.
Uninsured and Underinsured Motorists
Unfortunately, not every motorist carries adequate insurance. If you're in a collision with an uninsured or underinsured driver, your insurance may have to cover the costs, which could lead to increased insurance rates. Many insurance policies offer uninsured and underinsured motorist coverage specifically for this situation.
Comparative Negligence in Fault-Based States
Comparative negligence is applied in "fault" states to determine liability and compensation after a car accident. Under this system, the fault for an accident is not simply assigned to one driver or the other but can be divided among all parties involved based on their degree of responsibility for the accident.
Here's how it typically works:
- After an accident, an evaluation of each driver's actions helps determine how much they contributed to the accident.
- Each driver is then assigned a percentage that represents their share of the fault.
- This percentage is used to determine how much compensation each party is entitled to. If you were 30% at fault for an accident and suffered $10,000 in damages, you would be eligible to recover 70% of your damages, or $7,000, from the other party's insurance.
Some states operate under a "modified" comparative negligence rule, where you can only recover damages if you are less than 50% at fault.
Other states apply a "pure" comparative negligence rule, where you can recover damages even if you are 99% at fault, although your degree of fault would reduce your recovery.
PIP and State Laws
Personal injury protection, also known as "no-fault" insurance, is a type of car insurance coverage that pays for your own medical expenses and in some cases, lost wages, and other damages, regardless of who caused the accident. The goal of PIP coverage is to reduce the necessity of litigation over the cause of the accident and the associated costs.
- No-fault states: In some states, PIP coverage is mandatory. These states operate under a no-fault system, meaning your own insurance will cover your injury-related costs regardless of who was at fault in the accident. This includes states like Florida, Michigan, and New York.
- At-fault states: In other states, PIP coverage is optional. These states operate under a traditional tort insurance system where the driver at fault for the accident is responsible for the other party's losses. This includes states like Texas, Virginia, and California.
Do I Need Legal Advice After a Car Crash?
Fault in a vehicle accident can be a complicated issue. In some jurisdictions, the fault may even be split between parties. A knowledgeable automobile accident attorney can help prepare and present your case to ensure you are appropriately compensated or effectively defended.