A passenger who gets hurt in a car accident usually has an easier time than most other personal injury claimants. That's because the passenger typically doesn't have to worry about proving liability; someone else (usually one or more drivers) is going to be at fault for the car accident.
As with any personal injury claim, in a car accident case the plaintiff must be able to prove two things: liability (that someone else was at fault) and damages (how badly the claimant was injured).
If the crash was a two-car accident, at least one of the drivers is almost certainly going to be found liable. In a one-car accident (i.e., the driver hits a tree), the driver will usually be found at fault. As a general rule, if a driver hits a stationary object, he/she typically did something (or failed to do something) that amounts to negligence.
An injured passenger's damages can be shown through medical bills, proof of lost income, and evidence of the passenger's non-economic losses (like "pain and suffering" stemming from the injuries and necessary medical treatment). Learn more about damages in a personal injury case.
When the passenger makes a claim under the at-fault driver's car insurance policy, this is known as a third-party car insurance claim. A passenger injury claim proceeds just like any other type of car accident claim, except that the passenger might even make the claim against both drivers, if it was a two-car accident—unless one of the drivers was obviously not negligent, as in a rear-end crash; in that instance, the passenger might not bother filing an injury claim against the driver of the lead car.
If the accident took place in a no-fault car insurance state, an injured passenger is likely covered under the no-fault/personal injury protection (PIP) policy of the driver of the vehicle in which the passenger was riding. The injured passenger likely has no recourse against the other driver, unless the passenger's injuries meet the state's statutory thresholds for taking a claim out of no-fault.
In a fault-based state, once the passenger has completed his/her medical treatment, and is healed (or has reached "maximum medical improvement") the case is ready to be settled. If it is a case where both drivers could be at fault, the injured passenger (or his or her lawyer) will negotiate with both drivers' insurance companies. In many cases, a passenger injury claim can be settled painlessly, but there are situations where some difficulty could arise.
Let's take an example of a two-car accident in which both drivers are at fault.
Let's say \one passenger is seriously injured and has a claim worth about $100,000. If the case goes to trial, and the jury finds both drivers equally at fault, each driver's insurer will have to pay $50,000 to the injured passenger. But if the jury assesses liability at 75/25, then of course one driver's insurer will have to pay $75,000, and the other driver's insurer will only have to pay $25,000. Sometimes, innocent passengers can get caught in a dispute between two insurers over which driver is more liable.
Let's say insurer #1 believes its driver is only 25% at fault, but insurer #2 also believes its driver is only 25% at fault. That means each insurer is only going to be willing to pay $25,000 toward the settlement. The passenger is now stuck. In order to get the full value on his/her case, the passenger will have to wait until one or the other insurer caves and agrees to pay the proper amount. So, in this example, you can see how a fight over liability between the two insurance companies unnecessarily delays the passenger's settlement.
Another potential problem arises when there are multiple injured passengers.
Let's say a car carrying three passengers is rear-ended, and all four occupants of the car are injured. All four file claims against the negligent driver. If the total value of the injury cases exceeds the driver's liability car insurance coverage, each injured person may have to settle with the negligent driver for less than what his/her case is worth. Basically, all of the injured people have to take their money from the same small pot. If the injured claimants can't agree with each other as to how much each should get, the insurer is usually not going to settle with any of them. The passengers are then going to have to file suit in order to settle the issue of how much each will get.
If you are a passenger who was injured in a car accident, and you have any questions about your legal rights, you might want to discuss your situation with a car accident lawyer.