Auto Accident Law

Auto accident law can be more complex than you think, especially if you have an accident involving multiple liable parties. Following a car accident, consulting an attorney can give you a better idea of how to manage your car accident claim, from the compensation you really deserve for your injuries to how to determine liability after a car accident.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Aug 19, 2021

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Overview

  • Car accident liability can prove more complicated than you think: in addition to the liable driver, several other entities may also bear liability for the accident
  • Insurance coverage may vary after a car accident, depending on the specific policy you carry (or the coverage carried by the liable driver) and the factors that led to the accident
  • The liable driver’s insurance company may not pay out automatically after an accident and may, in fact, use a variety of tactics to decrease the coverage it has to provide
  • The actions you take after a car accident can have a substantial impact on your ability to recover the compensation you deserve, and following the right steps can help maximize the compensation you can receive

You had a car accident. Now what?

A car accident that results in substantial injuries can leave you struggling to understand auto accident law and how it may impact you moving forward, including your right to compensation.

If you have questions about your injuries, your right to compensation, or how those factors pertain to your accident, talking to an experienced auto accident attorney can help. Use our free search tool to find an auto accident attorney near you. 

Who bears liability for a car accident?

Determining liability for a car accident can be a complex process. Sometimes, you can clearly see that one driver caused the accident: a rear-end collision in which the rear vehicle clearly struck the front one, for example.

On the other hand, sometimes, in car accidents, you may need an attorney to conduct a deeper investigation to determine who is at fault for the accident and your injuries. 

In no-fault states, regardless of who caused an accident, personal injury protection insurance kicks in for each injured party – and each party uses their own insurance to provide needed coverage. Fault-based states, on the other hand, allow drivers to recover compensation for injuries caused by another negligent party automatically based on three types of negligence standards:

  •     Contributory negligence (the plaintiff is barred from recovering damages if they contributed in any way to the accident)
  •     Comparative negligence (the plaintiff may recover decreased compensation if they contributed to the accident)
  •     Modified comparative negligence (a plaintiff recovers damages only if they caused less than 51% of the accident)

Did a drunk driver cause your accident?

If a drunk driver caused your accident, you may have the right to seek compensation from the bar or restaurant that over-served that driver – but it depends on your state. Dram shop laws vary significantly from state to state.

In Nevada, for example, a bar or restaurant that serves a driver over the age of 21 will bear no liability for any accident caused by that driver. On the other hand, in Alabama, anyone injured due to a bar or restaurant over-serving alcohol to someone else has the right to file a personal injury claim against the bar or restaurant.

Generally, dram shop laws are based on the idea that the bar or restaurant over-served a patron, including serving a patron who already appeared to be intoxicated. 

Was the driver who caused your accident on the clock?

The roads are filled with a surprising number of drivers who are working behind the wheel. From Uber and Lyft drivers, who carry substantial auto insurance policies provided by the rideshare service, to delivery drivers and truck drivers, you may encounter many people on the roads who drive for commercial purposes.

Those drivers may spend a lot more time on the road or face additional hazards, including everything from unruly passengers to shifting or dangerous cargo. Some drivers, including truck drivers and tow truck drivers, receive special training to help them deal with those potential hazards, while others may not receive adequate training or assistance to help them deal with those challenges.

If you face an accident with a driver on the clock at the time of the accident, you may have the right to file for compensation from the driver’s employer as the driver himself. The driver’s employer may bear liability if: 

  • The driver was a truck driver whose company forced him to violate federal law regarding the number of hours he can legally spend on the road each day.
  • The driver’s employer did not conduct proper maintenance on a company-owned vehicle.
  • The driver’s employer pushed him to drive in unsafe conditions, including unsafe weather conditions or while suffering from inebriation or illness. 

Did a mechanical failure contribute to your car accident?

Mechanical failures, from brake failures or tire blowouts to engine trouble or transmission issues, can all substantially increase the risk of an accident. In the case of mechanical failure, several entities may share liability for an accident.

First, the owner of the vehicle, if different from the driver, may bear liability for failing to properly maintain the vehicle – especially if the owner is a commercial owner. If the mechanical failure occurred because of a factory defect caused by the manufacturer, the manufacturer of the vehicle or of the component part may bear liability for the accident. Finally, if a mechanic recently repaired the vehicle, but failed to properly complete the repairs, and it led to an accident, the mechanic may bear liability for the accident.

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What will the insurance company cover after a car accident?

So what does a car insurance policy cover after an accident?

Insurance coverage after a car accident may depend on the type of coverage you carry as well as who caused the accident in the first place. In general, the liable party’s insurance will pay for the damage associated with the car accident. The type of insurance coverage you have, however, may determine how much the company will pay out.

Liability-Only Coverage

Liability coverage – the most common type of auto insurance coverage – is required of every driver in all states. Minimum liability coverage, however, may vary depending on the specific state. For example, New York requires its drivers to carry a minimum of $25,000 in bodily injury protection coverage and $10,000 in property damage coverage for a single individual injured in an accident. California, on the other hand, requires drivers to carry a minimum of $5,000 in property damage protection coverage and $15,000 in coverage for the injury or death of a single person in an accident. 

 Liability coverage covers damage to the non-liable driver’s vehicle and injury suffered by the non-liable driver in an accident. It does not provide any coverage for the driver who caused the accident and may, in fact, not provide adequate coverage for someone who sustains serious injuries or property damage in an accident.

Collision Coverage

Collision coverage offers protection for your vehicle regardless of who caused the accident. If you cause an auto accident, collision coverage can prove essential in ensuring that you have the funds you need to repair or replace your vehicle.

Comprehensive Coverage

Comprehensive coverage is designed to provide protection for a vehicle no matter how it suffers damage. While collision coverage usually requires the vehicle to be damaged in a collision on the road – whether single-driver or involving more than one driver – comprehensive coverage covers other types of damage to your vehicle.

For example, comprehensive coverage kicks in if you suffer damage to your vehicle due to a falling branch, theft, or vandalism to your vehicle.  

Personal Injury Protection Coverage

Thirteen states, including Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, and Utah, require drivers to carry personal injury protection coverage in addition to liability insurance.

Other states, including Washington and Virginia, require insurance companies to provide optional PIP insurance to drivers insured by the company. Personal injury protection coverage kicks in any time the policyholder suffers injuries in an auto accident.  

Generally, PIP coverage offers immediate protection for medical costs related to an auto accident. Coverage amounts may vary, from a minimum of $2,500 in optional protection offered in Texas to the $50,000 in coverage required for New York drivers. The goal of PIP insurance is to provide immediate coverage for medical expenses following an accident, which could otherwise cause severe financial hardship for accident victims. 

Choose your auto insurance coverage carefully, since it can have a huge impact on your ability to pay for damage to your vehicle following a serious accident. In addition to the cost of repairing your vehicle, you may want to consider additions and riders to your policy, which may include roadside assistance or coverage for other things that your regular insurance policy does not cover. 

Underinsured Motorist Coverage

A look at minimum liability coverage for each state will show you that drivers who carry only minimum insurance may not have enough coverage to pay for expensive vehicle damage. If you have a new vehicle, your underinsured motorist coverage may prove critical to getting the compensation you need after an accident. Underinsured motorist coverage kicks in when the driver who causes an accident does not have adequate coverage. You can then use your underinsured motorist coverage to cover any additional damages, less the amount of your deductible. 

Uninsured Motorist Coverage

Despite state regulations that require drivers to carry at least minimum liability insurance, some drivers may take to the roads without insurance. In Florida, for example  – one of the states with the highest percentage of uninsured drivers – as many as 20% of drivers may not carry insurance.

If you get into an accident with an uninsured driver, you may need to use your own insurance policy to cover the cost of damages. Uninsured motorist coverage provides you with coverage under those circumstances. 

Coverage for Commercial Drivers and Vehicles

Commercial drivers may carry better insurance than the average driver of a passenger vehicle. Truck drivers, for example, often have much higher-value policies. Uber and Lyft both offer up to $1 million in coverage if their drivers cause an accident.  

Will the insurance company that covers the liable driver automatically pay out for the damages I sustained after a serious accident?

Following an accident, you may have several options for seeking coverage for damages to your vehicle and any injuries you sustained. Most obviously, you will need to turn to the other driver’s insurance in order to seek compensation. 

Unfortunately, many insurance companies will not pay out immediately for the damages you sustained in the accident. You may have a long fight ahead of you, especially if you sustained severe injuries and, as a result, need to seek considerable compensation.

Working with an attorney can help you more effectively navigate many of the challenges you may face when dealing with an insurance company. 

Delaying Coverage

Before the insurance company can even send someone out to take a look at the damage to your vehicle, it may need to start by getting a statement from the driver that caused the accident.

Often, that can drag out the process, making it much more difficult for you to get your vehicle repaired. In the meantime, if you take any steps toward getting your vehicle repaired, it could limit the compensation you can seek through the insurance company, or the insurance company might even deny your claim.

The insurance company may also use a variety of strategies to delay payment on the claim once the damage has been assessed and the company has a better idea of who caused the accident. 

Challenging Liability

After some auto accidents, you can clearly see who caused the accident and, therefore, who bears liability. You may know, for example, that a specific driver caused your accident and that additional factors did not contribute to the accident. Other accidents may require a more in-depth investigation of the factors that led to the accident. 

In spite of clear evidence, however, the insurance company may try to dispute liability. If the insurance company can prove that you contributed to the accident, it can prevent you from seeking further compensation for your injuries. 

How your liability or contributions impact the accident may depend on the specific laws of the state in which the accident occurred. If the other driver’s insurance company can prove that you contributed more than 50% to the accident, it will not have to pay out for the damages to your vehicle or for your injuries.

In some states, if the other driver’s insurance company can prove that you contributed significantly to the accident, it can also prevent you from seeking compensation for damage to your vehicle or for your injuries. Talk to your lawyer about your state’s specific laws and how they may impact your ability to seek compensation, especially if you contributed to the events that caused the accident in any way. 

Challenging Your Injuries

A personal injury claim related to an auto accident may involve a close look at the injuries you sustained as well as the circumstances that led to the accident. Your medical bills, for example, will form the foundation of that claim, while your long-term limitations and disability because of the auto accident may impact the compensation you can claim for pain and suffering.

The insurance company may require you to undergo an independent medical evaluation that will establish the extent of your injuries without bias. However, that doctor, often paid by the insurance company, may not provide the same assessment of your injuries and potential future limitations as the doctors who have been handling your care from the beginning.  

Issuing a Low Settlement

One of the most common tactics used by insurance companies to reduce the compensation they have to pay out is, surprisingly, the settlement offer. You may feel relieved to get a settlement offer from the insurance company, since a settlement will help cover your medical bills and make it easier to pay the expenses associated with your accident.

Unfortunately, insurance companies often start with an initial settlement that does not adequately reflect the compensation the victim of a severe accident actually deserves for those injuries. If you do not know the compensation you really deserve, you might not know that you need to continue negotiation. That’s why having an attorney on your side proves so valuable after severe injuries in an auto accident. 

What should you do to maximize the compensation you can receive after a car accident?

From the immediate aftermath of your auto accident to the days and weeks that follow, the steps you take in the immediate aftermath of the accident can have a substantial result on the compensation you can recover for your injuries.  

Always Report the Accident

Following a car accident, the liable driver may take many steps to try to convince you not to contact the authorities and report the accident. The driver may try to convince you that it will add too many points to their license or that they will be in “a lot of trouble” if they have to confess the accident to someone else, including the parents of a minor driver. 

Always, however, report the accident, especially an accident that results in serious injury or property damage. The incident report will help establish exactly who caused the accident and when it occurred, which can prove vital in filing a personal injury claim. 

Seek Medical Attention

After any type of serious accident, especially one that resulted in immense property damage, always seek medical attention. You may have much more serious injuries than you realize at the scene of the accident, especially if you hit your head.

Even whiplash or other seemingly minor injuries can cause you to suffer serious long-term effects, especially if you have more serious underlying injuries. A doctor can help evaluate those injuries and give you a better idea of what long-term limitations you may face as a result of those injuries.  

Once you have sought attention from an experienced medical professional, make sure you follow all recommendations issued by your care team. Your doctor may, for example, recommend that you avoid bearing weight on a broken leg, or that you remain bedridden until you have a chance to begin to recover from serious injuries.

Following traumatic brain injury, you may have to avoid driving or even engaging in certain types of sports until you recover, since any further head injury could further exacerbate those injuries. If you ignore your doctor’s instructions during you recovery, it could cause you to inadvertently worsen your injuries, and any increased symptoms would leave you, not the driver who caused your accident, liable for those damages.  

Contact an Auto Accident Attorney

Following an auto accident, especially one that results in substantial injuries, an attorney can be your best advocate. An auto accident attorney can help with everything from investigating the accident and its causes to establishing how much compensation you really deserve for your injuries, which could make it easier for you to ultimately recover as much compensation as possible. 

When do you need an auto accident attorney?

In general, you should always contact an auto accident attorney if you have questions about your rights after a car accident, since most personal injury attorneys will start with a free consultation to help you understand your rights. However, you should definitely bring in an attorney if:

  • You suffered serious injuries in the accident.
  • You believe the insurance company has not offered adequate compensation for your injuries.
  • You’re struggling to get the insurance company to actually issue payment for your personal injury claim.
  • The insurance company has thrown barriers in your way or attempted to prove that you, rather than the liable driver, caused the accident. 
  • You suffered damage in an accident with a big truck or other commercial driver, since investigations into those types of accidents may involve additional complexity or more challenges.

Auto accident law can quickly become complicated, especially if multiple factors contributed to the accident or there are any questions about liability.

A lawyer can often offer the best odds of answering those questions.

Do you need an auto accident attorney? Our free tool can help connect you with an auto accident attorney near you.

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