Personal Injury

When You Are Responsible for the Accident

Reviewed by David Goguen, J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law
If blame for the car accident sits squarely on you, don't admit fault, but do get to know your car insurance coverage.

If it turns out that you were pretty clearly at fault for your car accident, it’s not the end of the world, but it could end up costing you a certain amount of both money and hassle, depending on the specifics of your situation. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re legally responsible for someone else's injuries, vehicle damage, and/or other losses after a car accident.

Watch What You Say

Even at the scene of the most minor car accident, where no one is hurt and the vehicles just “traded paint,” things can be hectic and nerves can be on edge. It isn’t always easy to figure out who was at fault (or mostly at fault) for the crash, and the accident scene isn’t the proper time and place for making those kinds of determinations.

There are a number of things you should do (and are in fact legally obligated to do) at the accident scene, but one big “don’t” is this: Don’t admit you were at fault for the crash. In fact, don’t say anything that could even be construed as an admission of fault -- things like “I didn’t even see you,” or “I’m sorry.”

This is not to suggest that you should lie or withhold necessary information when you’re talking with others who were involved in the accident. Be polite, exchange contact and car insurance information, and co-operate with any law enforcement officer who comes to the scene. Just don’t get into any discussion of fault at the scene, with anybody. It may be a more complicated question than you think, and there will be plenty of time for a fault determination later on, after all the facts are in.

Learn more: Do's and Don'ts After a Car Accident.

If You Live in a No-Fault State

If you live in one of the dozen or so states that have a no-fault car insurance system in place -- that means Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Washington, D.C. -- you probably don’t have much to worry about even if you were technically at fault for the accident, as long as it was a pretty minor one.

That’s because, by law, drivers in these states must turn first (and often exclusively) to their own car insurance coverage to get payment for medical bills and other losses stemming from the accident, regardless of who might have been to blame.

Having said that, even in a no-fault state, you may still face a liability claim or personal injury lawsuit over a car accident if your state’s requirements for taking a claim outside of the no-fault system are met. That means someone injured in the accident incurred medical bills above a certain dollar amount, or their injuries were deemed “serious” enough under the standard in place in your state. Check out your state’s no-fault laws or talk to an attorney for the details.

If You Have Adequate Car Insurance Coverage

If you’re carrying enough car insurance coverage on your vehicle at the time of the accident -- to cover all losses caused by the accident, in other words -- your insurance company will defend any claim made against you (including a personal injury lawsuit filed in court).

The bad news? If you were at fault for the accident, you’ll almost certainly see a bump in your premium (that’s the amount you pay for coverage). And if you carry only a minimum amount of coverage, and injuries and other losses stemming from the crash exceed that coverage, you could personally be on the financial hook for the difference.

Learn more about Personal Injury Claims Versus Personal Injury Lawsuits.

If You Don’t Have Car Insurance

If you cause a car accident and you were driving around without any car insurance coverage (likely in violation of your state’s laws), you’re most likely going to be personally liable for any resulting injuries to other drivers and passengers, as well as any vehicle damage.

If you don’t have much in the way of assets or steady income, the other driver may not have many options when it comes to collecting on a judgment entered against you. But be prepared to pay whatever is feasible, and you may also want to get ready for more than a few phone calls and envelopes from attorneys and debt collectors.

This is all on top of the fact that if you cause a car accident and you don’t have insurance, you’ll have to pay to get your own car repaired or replaced. And if you are injured in the crash, hopefully you’ve got adequate health insurance that will cover any necessary medical treatment.

Get more tips on What to Do After a Car Accident.

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