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Legal Resources

Auto Accident Laws

Auto accident law, also referred to as car accident, motor vehicle accident, or traffic accident law, covers the rules used to determine who is liable for the damages resulting from a motor vehicle accident.

Content Reviewer, Attorney James P. Maniscalco
Created by our team of legal writers and reviewed by James P. Maniscalco. J.D.

These kinds of accidents often result in injury or property damage, with one party seeking compensation for the damages caused by the other’s negligence.

Motor vehicle accidents are, as the word accident suggests, unintentional. As a result, proving who is responsible can be tricky. Luckily, auto accident laws are in place to guide the process. Most states are what is known as tort, or at-fault, states. At-fault means one party will be held accountable and required to pay for accident-related costs. In no-fault states, however, each driver in an accident is responsible for covering their own losses through their insurance company.

How your accident-related costs get paid depends on the type of accident you had, the state you live in, and the type of insurance carried by the parties involved.

So, who determines fault, and how do they prove it?

Here’s a breakdown of traffic accident laws in your state:

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At Fault Coverage
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2 Years Statute of Limitation

Minimum Insurance

Determining Fault

Typically, after an accident, the police are called (in some states auto accident laws require it). The police make an official record of what happened, known as a police report. An insurer then uses the police report to determine which party was negligent or at-fault.

Motor vehicle accidents are usually a result of negligent actions. Therefore, negligence is critical in determining fault. There are three types of neglect:

  • Pure Contributory: Requires drivers to be 0% at fault to seek payment.

    Alabama, Washington D.C., Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia

  • Pure Comparative : Allows drivers to recover losses proportionate to their fault, i.e., if found to be 25% at fault in a $1,000 accident, the other driver’s insurance can be required to pay $750 or 75% of the settlement.

    Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington

  • Modified Comparative - A party cannot recover losses if it is 50 percent or more at fault, known as the 50 percent rule. So long as the party seeking compensation is 49 percent or less at fault, it can recover. However, the recovery is reduced by the degree of responsibility that is his.

    Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Furthermore, you’ll need to prove these four elements to win a negligence claim:

  • Duty of care:

    Drivers must operate vehicles safely and abide by traffic laws to ensure that other drivers and their property are safe.

  • Breach of duty:

    There must be proof the responsible driver breached their duty to drive safely. Examples of violations include going over the speed limit, not using turn signals, and running red lights.

  • Causation:

    Once the breach is proven, a cause and effect relationship must be verified. Injuries and damages sustained must be a direct result of the accident.

  • Injury/Damages:

    Lastly, the victim must be able to place a value on the losses and costs resulting from the accident. These costs may include medical bills, car repair costs, and injury or harm.

In fault states, the at-fault driver’s insurance covers the costs associated with the crash. In no-fault states, drivers often carry personal injury protection (PIP). Each driver’s insurance pays up to a specified threshold, except for property damage, which is paid by the at-fault party.

Aside from negligence, the type of insurance used in your state helps to determine who will pay for damages. There are two types of coverage – fault and no-fault.

Auto Accident Law Fault States No-Fault States
Insurance Requirements Vary by state, Most states require a minimum Personal Injury Protection (PIP)
Burden of Proof The person attempting to recover compensation Not required, unless you seek pain and suffering
Who Pays for Property Damage At-Fault party’s insurer if the case is won At-Fault party’s insurer if the case is won
Who Pays for Pain and Suffering At-Fault party’s insurer if the case is won Not Compensated in the No-Fault States
Who Pays for Medical Expenses At-Fault party’s insurer if the case is won Your PIP Insurer. $10,000 maximum benefits.
Lost Wages At-Fault party’s insurer if the case is won Your PIP Insurer. $10,000 maximum benefits.
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14 Common Causes of auto accidents

Drivers have a responsibility to maneuver their cars safely, and when they fail to, it can cause accidents. The cause of an accident can help in determining fault or liability. When a driver’s negligence leads to an accident, they can be held liable for the damage. Below are 14 causes of accidents, some driver error, and others not:

  • Distracted driving:

    Anything that can divert your attention from driving like cell phone use, eating, or changing the music station.
  • Speeding:

    A leading cause of motor vehicle traffic accidents and is a contributing factor in more than a third of fatalities.
  • Drunk Driving or Driving Under the Influence of Drugs:

    Alcohol and drugs impair your brain’s ability to fully function. Reasoning and muscle coordination are critical to operating a vehicle and are impaired by alcohol and drug use.
  • Reckless driving:

    Disregarding traffic signs, laws, or signals. Typical forms of reckless driving include tailgating, not stopping at red lights or stop signs, or exceeding speed limits.
  • Weather:

    Can impair a driver’s visibility and ability to control their vehicle. Fog, wind, snow, sleet, and rain are weather conditions that impact drivers.
  • Running Red lights or stop signs:

    Accidents caused by a driver running a red light tend to result in injuries more often than any other type of crash.
  • Inexperience:

    The leading cause of teen driver accidents.
  • Poor visibility:

    A dirty windshield, dirty headlights, sun glare, heavy rain, or driving at night can weaken a driver’s ability to see.
  • Drowsy Driving:

    Drowsiness reduces a driver’s alertness, slows reaction time, and affects decision making.
  • Vehicle Defects:

    Although manufacturers are required to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations, defects still cause accidents. Staying us to date with safety recalls can help drivers ensure their vehicles receive the service they require.
  • Unsafe maneuvers:

    A rolling right turn on at a red light, turning left into oncoming traffic, and speeding up to try and make it through a yellow light can cause accidents.
  • Tailgating:

    When a driver follows the car in front too closely. A contributing factor in more than one-third of all crashes.
  • Road Rage:

    Ignoring signals from other drivers, failing to signal, weaving through traffic, and unsafe lane changes are forms of road rage that can endanger others.
  • Road Conditions:

    Accidents can happen through no fault of the driver. Potholes, cracks in the road, or uneven road surfaces are examples of road conditions that can lead to accidents.

Injuries

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that more than three million people are injured each year in motor vehicle accidents.

While car accident injuries vary, the following is a list of the most common:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): About 10 percent of accident victims develop PSTD as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Feeling anxiety, feeling on edge, being more watchful, or avoidance are common PTSD symptoms.
  • Head and brain: Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) may occur when the skull strikes an object during a crash. Car accidents are the second leading cause of all TBI-related hospitalizations.
  • Back, neck and spine: A vehicle occupants’ body is sensitive to the sudden movements created by a car accident, resulting in whiplash, a common cause of neck and pain injuries.
  • Burns: Depending on how the accident happened, vehicle occupants can sustain first, second, third, and even fourth-degree burns.
  • Broken bones: Bodies are required to absorb a tremendous amount of force, which can lead to broken bones. Wrist, arm, rib, hip, pelvis, spine, skull, facial, clavicle, and leg fractures are the most common broken bones after a motor vehicle accident.
Couple consulting with an attorney at a desk

Why you need a motor vehicle accident attorney?

An attorney is well-versed in auto accident law and can help you evaluate the actual cost of damages associated with your accident. Although you may receive estimates for fixing your car or bills for hospital visits, there are potential future costs that may surpass policy limits.

Policy limits are a controlling factor in settlement negotiations. Policy limits are contractually agreed to caps on how much will be paid out. Often drivers purchase the minimum insurance required by law, limits which are easily exceeded.

Insurance is a business, and its goal is to make a profit.

Chances are your insurer has a team of attorneys and adjusters evaluating your claim. Insurance is a business, and their goal is to make a profit. They do this by paying out as little as possible for claims. With a team of attorneys looking out for their interests, insurance companies have the upper hand. Your best bet for leveling the playing field is to hire a motor vehicle accident attorney who has the know-how to recognize and protect you against bad faith insurance policies.

Bad faith insurance practices include:

  • Pressing you to accept the blame
  • Offering upfront lump sum payments
  • Attempting to settle medical claims prematurely

If your insurer isn’t cooperating or doesn’t have your best interest in mind, you may want to hire an experienced motor vehicle accident lawyer. Bad faith insurance laws are meant to protect you against unfair insurance practices.

A person receiving a compensation from his lawyer

What damages can I collect after an accident?

Filing an auto accident claim allows you to recover financial losses. Calculating settlement offers requires an exact breakdown of costs. Dollar figures for the following damages should be included:

  • Current and future medical expenses: Medical bills, including those covered by your insurance for pharmaceuticals, physical therapy, visits with specialists, and medical devices like crutches.
  • Current and future lost wages: Time taken off work and future time you will miss. Monetary compensation will be based off your salary.
  • Property damage: Injury or harm to anything other than a person, may include replacement value and cost of repairs.
  • Pain and suffering: Physical and emotional stress caused by accident.

Types of accidents Governed by Motor Vehicle Accident Law

Vehicle accidents cause injury and damages to varying degrees, depending on the severity of the crash. The location of damage can be used to help determine fault in an accident, as it can help indicate the direction in which the vehicles were traveling. Here are some of the most common types of accidents:

  • Bicycle accident icon

    Bicycle

    A crash involving a motor vehicle and bicyclist resulting in injuries. Cyclists are susceptible to serious injuries like head trauma and spinal cord injury even when they wear safety gear when involved in collisions with a vehicle.

  • Commercial Vehicle accident icon

    Commercial Vehicle

    A collision involving a delivery or cargo van, commercial passenger bus, transportation van, tow truck, or garbage truck.

  • Head on collision icon

    Head-on

    When the two front ends of vehicles collide with each other as a result of distracted or fatigued driving, low visibility, ignoring traffic signs, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. These types of collisions are often fatal but may also cause broken bones, organ damage, head injuries, and PTSD.

  • Hit and run accident icon

    Hit and run

    A collision in which at least one person involved flees before providing information or aid or fails to report the incident properly. Hit-and-runs and fatalities are on the rise, with a hit-and-run happening somewhere in the U.S. every 43 seconds.

  • Motorcycle accident icon

    Motorcycle

    Accidents involving motorcycles are more likely to result in severe injury or death. Motorcycles offer less protection for riders exposing them to head, brain, and spine injuries.

  • Pile up accident icon

    Multi vehicles

    Often referred to as “pile-ups,” these collisions tend to occur on busy roads like highways and freeways.

  • Passenger accident icon

    Passenger

    An injured passenger is eligible for compensation and typically won’t be required to prove liability. One or more drivers will be at fault for the accident, and by extension, a passenger’s injuries.

  • Pedestrian accident icon

    Pedestrian

    When a pedestrian is hit by a car. Most of these accidents happen in urban settings at night. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle traveling over 30 miles per hour results in more severe injuries and even fatalities.

  • Rear-end collision icon

    Rear-end

    Typically, a result of sudden braking but may be caused by one vehicle following too closely or accelerating to a higher speed than the car in front of it. Whiplash is the most common injury sustained from rear-end collisions.

  • Rollover accident icon

    Rollover

    SUVs, pickups, and vans are more susceptible to rolling over due to a higher center of gravity. Rollovers account for nearly 30 percent of all crash fatalities, with most deaths being people not wearing seatbelts.

  • Scooter accident Icon

    Electric scooter

    When a scooter rider collides with a pedestrian, is struck by a car or suffers an accident due to a road defect. Few riders wear helmets, ride on sidewalks and exceed 15 mph, leading to accidents and injuries.

  • Sime impact accident icon

    Side-impact

    More commonly known as “T-bone” occurs when the side of a vehicle is hit. Vehicle damage and injuries are usually severe, especially for drivers or passengers on the impacted side.

  • Car crashing into lightpost icon

    Single car

    A car accident involving only one vehicle. It can involve hitting an animal, object, pedestrian, or running off the road.

  • Truck accident icon

    Truck

    Commercial trucks are much larger and can weigh at least 25 times as much as a car; therefore, truck accidents can be much more catastrophic.

  • Ride share accident icon

    Uber/Lyft

    Uber and Lyft carry third party liability insurance policies that pay up to $1 million for personal injury and property damage.

Accidents are unexpected and stressful, here are some tips for what do in the event that you’re involved in one. Taking the right steps after an accident can help preserve evidence and give you the best chance at filing a successful motor vehicle accident claim.

What to do after a motor vehicle accident

  • Check if you are hurt
  • Check the welfare of passengers
  • Go to a safe place
  • Call 911
  • Wait until help arrives
  • Exchange information
  • Document the accident
  • Notify your insurance

What you should not do after an accident:

The actions you take or don't take after a car accident are critical to your claim, your compensation and your future. Consulting with an experienced car accident lawyer as soon as possible after your accident can ensure that your first step is in the right direction.

Lose your cool after the crash
Leave the scene
Accept fault
Sign documents
Not hire an attorney

The actions you do or don’t take after a motor vehicle accident are critical to your claim, your compensation, and your future. Consulting with an experienced motor vehicle accident lawyer as soon as possible after your accident can ensure your first step is in the right direction.

Modified 10/21/19

Sources

  1. GHSA Spotlight on Highway Safety Report 2014.
    Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Retrieved January 5, 2015.
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