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Understanding State Liability Laws: Fault and No-Fault Accidents

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All states have laws regarding liability in case of an accident. To obtain compensation for injuries, you generally have to prove by the standard of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that another party or entity was negligent or otherwise caused your injury and damages.

Some states, however, are no-fault states. No-fault is an insurance compensation system for persons injured in accidents arising out of the use of a motor vehicle that will pay certain victims for medical, wage loss and other qualifying expenses incurred to a monetary limit as a result of the accident, regardless of who was at fault in the accident. These are often referred to as PIP benefits, or personal injury protection benefits.

Currently, there are 18 states that have no-fault laws pertaining to auto accidents. Three states, Kentucky, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, are optional, where drivers can choose whether to be held to a no-fault system. Arizona is not a no-fault state, but is a fault or tort state, where you have to prove fault by another party to collect any damages.

Fault or Tort States

Arizona and 37 other states do not have no-fault laws in auto accident cases. This means that you must prove that another party was responsible for your accident and injuries before any of your damages can be paid, though you do not have to meet any kind of threshold before you can bring a claim.

Minimum Auto Liability Requirements

Most states require that motorists purchase at least a minimum amount of auto insurance so that you or another party can be compensated in case of an accident. In Arizona, you are required to have no less than:

  • $25,000 for bodily injury liability per person
  • $50,000 bodily injury liability per accident
  • $25,000 property damage liability per accident

Alternatively, you can choose to not have auto insurance, but be prepared to post a $40,000 bond to prove you can pay for damages in an accident. There is no requirement that you carry uninsured or underinsured coverages. Uninsured coverage will provide you compensation in case the other motorist was uninsured. Underinsured can provide additional compensation from your own policy if your coverage was more than the limits of the responsible party's policy.

No-Fault Laws

No-fault was designed to decrease the cost of litigation and to give assurance to those who are injured and who are treating them that compensation and payment for medical treatment are available without having to file an accident claim with the responsible party's insurer or to litigate the matter by filing a lawsuit.

To qualify for benefits, you must have been one of the following:

  • Passenger
  • Bicyclist
  • Pedestrian
  • Driver

However, for the purposes of the no-fault law, PIP benefits generally do not extend to injured victims who were riding motorcycles, mopeds or an ATV, or if you were an injured driver but lacked liability insurance on your vehicle.

You may collect PIP benefits by looking at the insurance covering the vehicle for which you were a driver or a passenger. If you were a bicyclist or pedestrian who was injured, it is the insurance covering the vehicle that struck you who will provide the benefits.

However, if you were engaged in the commission of a crime while injured in an auto accident, then no-fault benefits are not available to you. This would include:

  • Driving a stolen vehicle
  • Injured while in the course of committing a felony
  • Engaged in street racing
  • Driving while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs

What are No-Fault Benefits?

The number of no-fault benefits you may collect vary among the states that provide such coverage. For example, Minnesota provides PIP benefits up to $4000; Massachusetts provides up to $8000, while New York's limit is $50,000.

Most PIP benefits include:

  • Medical expenses and costs of medications
  • Lost wages to a certain percentage
  • Travel expenses to and from medical treatment
  • Certain other qualifying expenses such as cost of hiring persons to perform household tasks or replacement costs of up to a maximum, usually around $25 per day (cleaning lady, babysitter, transportation to work or shopping)
  • A death benefit to beneficiaries under your policy

The no-fault system does not compensate you for pain and suffering. If you do go for more than one year without receiving medical care or even seeing a doctor and then try to resume treatment, you will be denied further benefits.

The advantages of no-fault include:

  • Your medical and wage losses are paid more quickly than in tort states where your claim must first be settled or after litigation that results in a monetary award
  • There is no requirement that fault be proved
  • You need not file an accident injury claim

However, if your medical expenses and lost wages are more than the PIP limit or you sustained a serious injury, you will need the services of an experienced personal injury lawyer if you wish to recover additional compensation, including damages for pain and suffering. Also, you are subject to being examined by a medical doctor chosen by the insurer whose main focus is to limit your PIP benefits or claim that certain treatment was unnecessary. Your attorney can advise you regarding these examinations and your legal options.

Threshold Requirements

In no-fault states, you can recover for your medical and other losses from the no-fault carrier, but you cannot bring a personal injury lawsuit against the responsible motorist for additional damages including pain and suffering unless you meet a certain threshold. In some no-fault states, this might be a monetary threshold such as a certain amount in medical expenses and wage losses while other states may require that you have sustained a "serious injury," or either. A serious injury is generally regarded as a personal injury that results in one of the following:

  1. Fatality
  2. Dismemberment
  3. Death of a fetus
  4. Significant disfigurement
  5. Fracture
  6. Permanent loss of a bodily function, organ, or bodily system
  7. A non-permanent injury or impairment where you are unable to substantially engage in your usual and customary daily activities for a certain time.

This last provision usually includes your inability to perform your usual household tasks such as cleaning or cooking or being able to work.

Also, if you do file a lawsuit after meeting the threshold, the PIP carrier may be entitled to reimbursement from you for the benefits it paid from whatever compensation you recover. In other states, the PIP carrier may have a right of subrogation so that it can recover directly from the at-fault party's insurer. You are not permitted to receive benefits that duplicate those received from the PIP carrier.

Proof of Meeting the Threshold

Some of the threshold requirements are obvious. In regards to a significant disfigurement, it is probably more than a slight scar on your arm. If it is clearly visible on your face, then that would likely qualify. Similarly, a prominent scar on your leg that makes a woman hesitant or embarrassed to wear a dress or shorts would also qualify. The standard that may be applied is how a reasonable person would react upon observing the scar.

A permanent injury must be proven by credible medical evidence and not simply by the plaintiff's testimony. An injury is considered permanent when a credible medical provider offers evidence showing that the injury or body organ has not healed and will not function normally even with further medical treatment.

Comparative Negligence

Another aspect of state liability laws concerns comparative negligence. Some states do not allow you to recover any compensation in an injury claim or lawsuit if you were deemed even 1% liable for the accident, while other states allow recovery if you were no more than 49% at fault.

Arizona is considered a pure comparative negligence state whereby you may recover compensation even if you are found to be 99% at fault. The amount of compensation you may recover is decreased by your own degree of fault. For example, if you were 80% at fault and your damages are $100,000, you may recover $20,000.

If you have been involved with an accident, we can assist you with the help you need. Contact our office today to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

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