Car Accident Injury Cases: The Basics

If you've been injured in a car accident, start here to understand your claim options.

The liability and insurance rules that apply to car accident claims are different from state to state. How will a claim be affected if more than one driver may be at fault for the accident? How does an injury claim or lawsuit work in the dozen or so "no fault" car insurance states? Let's tackle these issues, plus a few more.

Determining Fault for a Car Accident

After a car accident, in most states the at-fault driver will be on the financial hook for resulting vehicle damage and injuries. From a practical standpoint, it's the at-fault driver's car insurance company that will cover most claims arising from the accident, and the driver will usually "pay" in the form of a raised car insurance premium. Most states follow these traditional "fault" principles when it comes to legal and financial responsibility for car accident losses. If you're in one of the dozen or so states that follow some version of a no-fault car insurance system, you'll want to check out the "No Fault States" section below.

While differences in insurance rules have a major impact on claims, nothing has a bigger effect than the determination of who was at fault for the car accident. Sometimes fault is pretty straightforward, as when one of the drivers violated the state vehicle code or broke the unwritten "rules of the road" (as where a driver rear-ends another vehicle and three impartial witnesses saw what happened). In other (perhaps most) accident scenarios, it's not clear who was at fault.

Proving liability in a car accident case usually means proving negligence on the part of one of the drivers, which requires establishing a few key elements:

A legal duty was breached. In the case of car accidents, this legal duty of care is the one that all drivers owe to anyone on the road—other drivers, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists—which is to operate a vehicle in a reasonably safe manner considering all the circumstances.

The behavior of the driver who is supposedly at fault is compared to what a reasonably prudent driver would have done in the same circumstances. Failure to exercise proper care when driving usually equals a "breach" of the legal duty of care, which amounts to negligence. Proof that a driver was cited for a traffic violation in connection with the accident will go a long way toward establishing that a duty was breached, for example.

The breach of duty led to injuries. It isn't enough for the other driver to have been negligent. The driver's negligence had to have actually been the direct or proximate cause of the accident, which means that the accident would not have happened if the other driver had been more careful. And the negligence must have led to actual injury, vehicle damage, or other loss.

Note that insurance adjusters probably won't talk about "legal duty" and "breach" in assessing the fault question after a crash, but the above explanation provides the underlying legal basis for the adjuster's analysis.

Shared Fault In Car Accident Cases

If the injured claimant shares some amount of blame for causing the car accident, it could have an effect on the amount of compensation ("damages") they can receive. And in some cases, an injured claimant won't be able to recover anything at all from other at-fault parties, if the claimant is also deemed at fault for the accident. The impact that shared fault will have depends on the rules in place in your state.

(Note that these rules will definitely come into play to impact a plaintiff's case in a car accident lawsuit that ends up going to trial. But insurance adjusters keep these rules in mind too, when making (or not making) settlement offers.)

Pure Comparative Fault States. In these states an injured driver who played a role in causing the accident can still collect compensation (damages) from other at-fault parties, at a ratio that mirrors the injured person's share of the fault. So, if Dan is 70% responsible for causing the accident, and his damages add up to $10,000, he can still collect $3,000 from other at-fault parties.

Modified Comparative Fault States. In these states, if Dan is injured in a car accident, he can only collect damages from other at-fault parties if he is less than (or no more than) 50 percent responsible for the accident. So, sticking with the above example, if Dan's share of the blame drops to 40%, he can collect $6,000. But if he is still deemed 70% responsible, he can't collect anything at all.

Contributory Negligence States. In a handful of states, a person who shares any amount of blame for the accident (even one percent or less) will have their injury claim barred altogether, and will be unable to get compensation from any other party.

Car Accidents In "No Fault States"

A dozen or so states follow some version of a no-fault car insurance system. In most of these states, no-fault is mandatory. But in a few states policy purchasers have the option of choosing no-fault or traditional liability coverage.

With no-fault (or "personal injury protection") coverage, an injured driver turns first (and sometimes exclusively) to his or her own car insurance coverage after a car accident, no matter who actually caused the crash. It's only possible to step outside the "no fault" system and file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver if the case meets one or more thresholds in place in the state. These thresholds relate to the seriousness of the injuries and the dollar amount of medical treatment made necessary by the car accident injuries.

Learn more about how no-fault car insurance works (with links to state-by-state details).

For information that's tailored to your particular situation after a car accident, your best first step might be to discuss your options with a car accident lawyer.

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