Car Accident Auto Accident Liability: Tort & No-Fault Law by State

  1. If you are a passenger in a car involved in an auto accident, can you make a claim and recover damages against either driver? What if you were the operator of a car and the other driver was at fault? The answer to these questions depends upon the state within which you live and where the accident took place.

    Auto Accident Liability: Tort Law States

    The legal system generally handles auto accident claims in the U.S. in two different ways. It defines who may be sued and also the extent of their liability for damages. The majority of states (thirty-eight in 2012) follow the tort law system, where the driver of the vehicle who is determined to be at fault is held responsible to pay for damages to injury victims. Compensation may include medical expenses, pain and suffering, loss of wages from work and other actual damages. If you live in a state that uses the tort law system and were a passenger in a car involved in an auto accident, you should be able to recover damages against a negligent driver. In tort law, proof of negligence is required. This means proving that the driver did not exercise reasonable care in operating a motor vehicle that an ordinary person would have used under the circumstances.

    Auto Accident Liability: No-Fault States

    Twelve states use the no-fault system, which is an alternative method to the tort law system. An injured driver or passenger files claims with the insurance carrier covering the vehicle which caused their injuries. As a result, the driver is insured against being sued by other passengers, drivers or pedestrians. The insurance company pays the accident victim for legitimate related medical expenses, lost earnings and incidental costs regardless of who is actually at fault. The reason this law was enacted was to provide quick financial help to accident victims without the need for the usual prolonged court battles and settlement arguments over fault issues and amounts of compensation.

    Most no-fault states require that a driver carry some combination of the following coverage listed below. No-fault insurance has caps on the amounts it pays so you should check with your insurance agent as to the actual limits of your policy.
    • Personal injury protection

      Pays for medical expenses and for lost wages for a period of time - in Michigan it is 3 years;
    • Property and physical damage protection

      Pays for damages caused to property owned by victims – the driver’s damages are covered if the driver has elected for optional collision and comprehensive coverage;
    • Residual bodily injury and property damage

      Pays for the cost of your defense and additional damages that may not be covered in other parts of the policy.
    In some circumstances where the level of negligence and injuries caused by an auto accident are severe, a driver can be sued. In many states, the following exceptions permit an accident victim to sue a driver and not be limited by no-fault insurance:
    • The accident causes death;
    • Dismemberment or serious disfigurement;
    • A pregnancy is terminated or child lost;
    • A bone fraction;
    • A permanent loss or significant limitation of a body organ, member, function or system;
    • A significant injury occurs within a certain number days after the accident which prevents or impairs the victim from performing most of that person’s usual activities (such as work) for a significant period of time.
    • The accident occurs in another state;
    • The accident occurs with a non-resident who was in a motor vehicle not registered in the state.

    Tort Law and No-Fault States

    Tort Law System

    • Alabama
    • Alaska
    • Arizona
    • Arkansas
    • California
    • Colorado
    • Connecticut
    • Delaware
    • Georgia
    • Hawaii
    • Idaho
    • Illinois
    • Indiana
    • Iowa
    • Louisiana
    • Maine
    • Mississippi
    • Missouri
    • Montana
    • Nebraska
    • Nevada
    • New Hampshire
    • New Mexico
    • North Carolina
    • Ohio
    • Oklahoma
    • Oregon
    • Rhode Island
    • South Carolina
    • South Dakota
    • Tennessee
    • Texas
    • Vermont
    • Virginia
    • Washington
    • West Virginia
    • Wisconsin
    • Wyoming

    No-Fault Law System

    • Florida
    • Hawaii
    • Kansas
    • Kentucky
    • Massachusetts
    • Michigan
    • Minnesota
    • New Jersey
    • New York
    • North Dakota
    • Pennsylvania
    • Utah

    Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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