Car Accident Injury Claim Basics

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

By , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated By Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

The insurance and liability rules that apply to car accident claims vary from state to state. In most cases, the at-fault driver is legally responsible (liable) for car accident-related losses ("damages"). In other words, deciding who caused an accident determines who pays for car repairs and injury-related losses, like medical bills and lost wages. In this article, we'll cover:

  • how the law determines car accident liability
  • what happens when more than one person is at fault for an accident, and
  • special rules in "no-fault" car insurance states.

Determining Fault for a Car Accident

In most states, the person who is at fault for a car accident is the person who will be on the financial hook for any vehicle damage and injuries caused by the accident. From a practical standpoint, it's usually that person's car insurance company that foots the bill for most accident-related claims.

Most states follow these traditional "fault" principles when it comes to legal and financial responsibility for car accident losses. Special rules apply in the dozen or so states with no-fault car insurance systems (see below).

Insurance rules have a major impact on claims, but the most important factor in any car accident claim is how the law determines liability. Sometimes fault determinations are pretty straightforward, like when one of the drivers violates a traffic law or rear-ends another car in a parking lot full of impartial witnesses. In other (perhaps most) accident scenarios, it's not as clear who was at fault.

Proving liability in a car accident case usually means showing that someone was negligent. To show negligence, you'll typically have to prove a few key things:

  • A legal duty was violated. All people on the road (drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists) have a legal duty of care to act in a way that's unlikely to injure anyone else on the road. A person violates ("breaches") the duty of care by creating a dangerous situation beyond the normal level of risk that a reasonable person would have allowed in the same circumstances. Most accidents happen because someone was careless. Carelessness can be a breach of the duty of care, which amounts to negligence. For example, proof that a driver was cited for a traffic violation in connection with the accident will go a long way toward showing that a driver violated a duty of care.
  • The breach of duty led to injuries. It isn't enough for another person to have been negligent. That person's negligence has to have been the direct or proximate cause of the accident, which means that the accident wouldn't have happened if that person had been more careful. And the negligence must have led to actual harm—vehicle damages, injury, or other loss.

Insurance adjusters probably won't talk about "legal duty" and "breach" in assessing the question of fault after a crash, but their analysis is based on these concepts.

Shared Fault In Car Accident Cases

In most states, even if you were partly to blame for an accident, you can still get compensation from anyone else who was also at fault for your losses ("damages"). In other states, you'll receive nothing if you share fault for your accident. These rules apply to car accident lawsuits that end up going to trial and to insurance adjusters' settlement offers.

Pure Comparative Fault States

In these states, a person who shares blame for an accident can still collect compensation from other at-fault parties, at a ratio that mirrors that person's share of the fault. So, if Dan is 70% responsible for causing an 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 50% or so 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's still deemed 70% responsible, he can't collect anything from other at-fault parties.

Contributory Negligence States

In a handful of states, a person can't recover compensation if they share any amount of blame—even 1%—for the accident.

Car Accidents In "No-Fault States"

A dozen or so states follow some version of a no-fault car insurance system. In these states, drivers typically must carry no-fault insurance (also called "personal injury protection" or PIP). In other states, PIP is available as an alternative or supplement to traditional liability coverage.

With no-fault coverage, injured drivers or passengers turn first (and sometimes exclusively) to their own car insurance coverage after a car accident, no matter who caused the crash. It's only possible to step outside the "no-fault" system and file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver if a claim meets one or more thresholds in place in the state. For example, state law might allow a person to file a liability claim or lawsuit against an at-fault driver when medical expenses exceed $5,000.

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

Talk to a Lawyer

If you've been involved in a car accident, you should probably talk to a lawyer. You might be able to handle your own car accident claim, but you might get less than what your claim is worth (or pay more than what you owe) if you do.

Learn more about when to lawyer up after a car accident and how to find the right lawyer for your case. You can also fill out the form at the top or bottom of this page to connect with a lawyer for free.

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