Guide to Car Accident Law in the United States
If you or a loved one have been involved in a traffic incident, you may have a legal claim for your injuries as well as damage to your vehicle. Here is what you need to know about the relevant law.
This applies to serious car crashes or collisions, or even minor auto accidents, such as a “fender bender.” Also see our 7 step practical guide immediately following an accident.
And if you are a car accident victim and you are physically injured, you should also see our page If I’m Injured, What are My Rights?.
What is considered a car accident?
There is no precise legal definition of a car accident, but usually the proper legal term is “traffic incident.” A traffic incident can include any damage to property or harm to an individual which is caused by a vehicle. This can even include situations where a person intentionally caused a car collision, although these cases also may be considered battery or assault with a deadly weapon (where the car is used as a weapon), or, if someone is killed, manslaughter or even murder.
A traffic incident can also be caused by a driverless vehicle, such as an autonomous car, or even a car rolling down a hill with nobody in it.
Do I need a lawyer for a car accident claim?
It is usually a good idea to talk to a lawyer following a car crash. Your insurance company is not looking out for your best interests, as they are simply trying to spend as little money as possible. Only an attorney can properly advise you of your legal rights after a traffic accident. For example, you may or may not want to file a car accident lawsuit against the other people involved in the crash, or potentially third parties such as employers or insurance companies.
A lawyer can help you answer such questions as “Should I sue the person that hit me?” or “What should I do if I am sued after a car accident?”
What kind of lawyer handles car accidents?
Car accidents generally fall under the legal area of “personal injury law,” which involves any injuries to people or damage to property. A “personal injury lawyer” usually handles car crashes.
How much does a car accident lawyer cost?
If you have a good case, you usually won’t have to pay any legal fees upfront. Lawyers who handle car accident cases mostly work “on contingency,” which means that if they believe you have a good chance of winning, they will represent you without charge unless you win. If you do end up obtaining compensation, most lawyers will take 1/3 (about 33%) of the money for their fees.
If you are likely to be found at fault, you will most likely need to pay a lawyer hourly (or rarely a flat rate) to represent you. This is usually between $200 to $600+ per hour, which definitely can add up to many thousands of dollars (one estimate for the cost of a full trial in an automobile case is $17,000 to over $100,000).
Either way, car accident lawyers often provide a free consultation, so it’s a good idea to at least get some sense of what your case looks like.
What if I get injured in a car accident?
If you experience any physical pain and suffering from a car accident, such as back pain, leg pain, joint pain, head trauma, or anything else, you may be able to get compensation for your injuries. You should get medical attention right away for treatment as well as for documentation of your injuries. Even if you don’t feel pain right away, you should get a diagnosis, as people often experience delayed health issues in the days following a car accident.
What if someone dies in a car accident?
If someone dies in a vehicle accident, the family of the victim may be able to get compensation, depending on who was at fault. See below for more on this.
What are my legal rights after a car crash that is not my fault?
If you are not found to be at fault for a car accident, you may be able to successfully sue the other parties involved in the crash. You could potentially get financial compensation for any injuries and/or car damage (or other property damage) you experienced as a result of the crash. And if you are forced to miss any work due to your injuries, you may be able to get a payout for “loss of income.”
What are my legal rights after a car crash that is my fault?
If you are found to be at fault for a car accident, you have the right to defend yourself in court to limit any money you may have to pay. However, ultimately you may need to pay compensation to those who you caused harm to, which your insurance company may or may not cover.
How is fault determined in a car accident?
Ultimately it is up to a court to decide “liability,” or who is to blame for a car crash. This can involve either a judge or a jury (or both). But most often it does not get to a court because the parties do not want to go through the trouble and cost of a trial. In that case, the parties may agree to “settle” the case, which may or may not involve one or both parties accepting blame.
Also, in a traffic incident, often it is not one person or the other who is 100% responsible (“liable”), but one person may be 75% responsible and the other 25% responsible. This is called “contributory negligence” and if you are at fault even a bit, it will reduce the amount of compensation you can receive. Usually the less at fault you are than the other party, you have more right to receive compensation from them. But if it is close to a 50/50 split, then it’s possible that nobody will get compensated.
If a person is driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, are they at fault for an accident?
It is more likely that they would be found at fault, but it’s not guaranteed. See our Guide to Alcohol Laws for more.
What does it mean if a car is “totaled”?
If a car is deemed “totaled,” this means that the cost to repair the vehicle is greater than the cost to replace it. In these cases, where it is covered by insurance, generally the insurance company will provide pay the insured cash in the amount of the value of the vehicle.
What are my rights if I experience a “hit and run” incident?
Well, if you can’t ever find the person who did it, then there is no way to get compensation from them. But your insurance policy may cover at least some of the injuries and/or property damage.
If you have some evidence of the person who did the hit-n-run, such as a photo of the car or license plate, then you may be able to track them down. But do NOT try to follow them or confront them on your own! You should ask a lawyer or a personal investigator for more info on this.
If you are able to track down the hit-and-runner, you may be able to obtain additional compensation (called “treble damages” and/or “punitive damages”) from them for leaving the scene of the crash.
Is it illegal to do a hit and run?
Yes, if you are involved in any kind of car collision, whether with another vehicle, bicycle, motorcycle, or pedestrian, it is illegal to leave the scene without stopping to identify yourself. In most states, this applies even if you are not at fault.
Depending on the circumstances, it can be considered a criminal act as well as leave you liable for additional civil penalties. The penalties for a hit and run can be up to $20,000 fine or even up to 15 years in jail, in addition to a possible tripling of any money you owe from a civil court judgment based on the incident.
In addition, you could have your drivers license suspended or revoked.
What happens if an Uber or Lyft gets into an accident?
If an Uber or Lyft driver is actively driving for hire, and the Uber or Lyft driver is at fault, then Uber or Lyft’s insurance policy would likely kick in. See more about Laws related to Uber and Lyft drivers.
If an Uber or Lyft driver is NOT actively driving for hire, or the Uber or Lyft driver is at fault, then it is essentially a typical car accident.
What happens if a self-driving vehicle gets into an accident?
If a self-driving (aka “autonomous”) car hits someone or something, it’s not entirely clear yet what the legal consequences are. In the first known case of a pedestrian to be killed by a driverless car, the company that owns the car (Uber) was not charged with criminal manslaughter, although Uber did pay a settlement to the pedestrian’s family for the death.
Many car accident related laws vary by state. For traffic incidents in California, see our Guide to Car Accident Laws in California.
As mentioned above, after a car accident it is usually a good idea to talk to a personal injury lawyer to determine what rights you have. You can usually get a free consultation.