In the United States, over 60,000 people are injured in car accidents every year. In almost all cases, the victim of an at-fault driver must resolve his claim under state law in order to receive compensation. Compensation is available for both tangible and intangible (psychological) losses. Following is a general overview of auto accident compensation issues in the U.S.
Sources of Compensation: Insurance
Most insurance claims against an at-fault driver are resolved, if at all, through payments under an insurance policy maintained by one of the drivers. A number of different types of insurance policies are available to motorists, including:
- Bodily injury liability insurance (required in most states). This type of insurance does not cover your own injuries – it is designed to cover your liability to injured parties in accidents that were at least partly your fault. Minimum coverage limits are defined by state law.
- Property damage liability insurance (required in most states). Property damage liability insurance is designed to cover your liability for damage to the property of another due to an accident – a totaled car, for example.
- Personal injury protection or “no-fault” insurance (required in some states): This type of insurance is designed to cover expenses for your own injuries if you were at fault for the accident, or if the at-fault driver was uninsured or underinsured (check your policy for details).
- Collision insurance (optional): Collision insurance covers property damage to your own vehicle regardless of fault.
- Other forms of insurance are available, such as GAP insurance (which pays off your auto financing loan if your car is totaled and the value of your car is less than the balance of your financing loan).
Burden of Proof
As a plaintiff in an auto accident case, you must prove your claim by the relatively low “preponderance of evidence” standard (“more likely than not” or 51 percent likelihood) rather than the stringent “beyond a reasonable doubt” used in criminal cases.
Fault and Its Effect on Compensation
If you were partially at fault for the accident, your compensation will be reduced, perhaps even to zero, depending on state law. Different states use one of the following four methods of dealing with at-fault auto accident injury victims:
- Pure comparative fault: The court will assign you a percentage of fault for the accident, and then subtract that percentage from your damages. Even if you were 60 percent at fault, for example, you will still receive 40 percent of your damages.
- Modified comparative fault: The court will assign you a percentage of fault and subtract that exact amount from your damages – unless your percentage of fault reaches a certain threshold, in which case the court will dismiss your claim and deny you any damages at all. The applicable threshold is 50 percent or 51 percent, depending on the state.
- Pure contributory negligence: The court will dismiss your claim and deny you any damages at all if you were even one percent at fault. Only a few states apply this rule.
- “Slight negligence”: Your claim will be dismissed if you committed anything more than “slight negligence”. Only South Dakota applies this rule.
Types of Compensation Available
Two main types of compensation are available – economic damages and non-economic damages. Another type of damages, punitive or exemplary damages, is sometimes available.
- Economic damages include medical expenses, lost work time, lost future earnings, travel expenses, etc.
- Non-economic damages include psychological damages such as pain and suffering and mental anguish. These damages sometimes far exceed the amount of economic damages.
- Punitive damages are awarded only when the defendant’s conduct was outrageous. Courts are reluctant to award punitive damages, and many states have placed limits on the maximum amount that can be awarded.
A skilled personal injury attorney can maximize both your chances of victory and the amount of damages that you eventually receive.