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Passengers rights in a car accident

Passengers are just as likely to be seriously injured in a car accident as drivers, yet many people are unaware of the rights they have and how they should go about seeking compensation if they are injured while riding as a passenger. Under the law, passengers have the same ability to sue for damages as the driver. In fact, they have even greater rights than the driver as they can seek damages from whichever driver is determined to be at fault, including the driver of the vehicle they were riding in, or both drivers if they are both at fault.

Who is responsible for passenger injuries in case of an accident?

In New York State, passengers are required to file a Personal Injury Protection (PIP) or no-fault claim, but that doesn’t mean they are limited to seeking compensation only up to the limits of no-fault insurance. If your injuries are more serious, you may also make a claim against the responsible party or parties, in this case the driver or drivers who are found to be at fault for the accident. It may seem obvious that you can sue the other driver if they caused the accident, but what may not be so obvious is that you are also able to sue the driver of the vehicle you are driving in.

What if your friend was driving? What kind of person sues a friend?

Sometimes people get pressure from friends and family not to file a lawsuit, especially if it involves a friend. I understand why people take this position given widespread misunderstanding of what personal injury lawsuits are, but in the end, this type of attitude hurts everyone.

To better understand what I mean, let’s explore what it really means to “sue a friend” by asking a few basic questions:

  • Why does your friend have car insurance?
    The very reason your friend has car insurance is to ensure that if he or she causes an accident, the injured parties will be compensated. Put yourself in his or her shoes. Does it make sense that strangers should be compensated for their injuries, but your own friend should go without the benefits of the car insurance you pay for all year long?
  • Why are you seeking compensation?
    In all the years I’ve been practicing, I have never seen a case where someone sues their friend in order to seek vengeance or punish their friend for causing the accident. Personal injury lawsuits are filed when someone sustains a serious injury that will affect them physically, emotionally and financially. Even in cases where the injuries may not be obvious, it’s not up to you, your friends, family or neighbors to determine what’s a serious injury, that’s for your doctors to decide.
  • Aren’t lawsuits just about greed?
    A lawsuit is not a lottery ticket, and winning is not like getting the big prize. When people are genuinely affected by serious injuries, it is fair and just that they should be compensated. I think everyone can agree on that.

Where does passenger compensation come from?

A passenger compensation claim can be more complicated than that of a driver’s claim. The passenger is automatically an innocent party (with few exceptions, which I’ll get to below) as he or she was not in control of either vehicle. Whereas drivers will make a claim against each other, passengers may receive compensation from either driver or both drivers. In cases where both drivers are found partially at fault, your claim would be paid in part by each driver’s insurance company. This doesn’t mean you’ll get double the compensation. Your total claim remains the same but will be partially paid by each insurer.

To give you an example, let’s say your total injuries are determined to be worth $50,000. If driver A is found to be 60% at fault, that means driver B is 40% at fault. In this case Driver A’s insurance will pay you $30,000 and Driver B’s insurance will pay you $20,000, making your total compensation $50,000.

Although the passenger is not at fault, a resolution is not as easy as it seems.

In many cases the insurance companies will disagree on which driver is at fault. This obviously creates a complication in arriving at a fair settlement. As a passenger, you don’t really care which insurance company pays you which percentage of your claim, however you may find yourself waiting for the two drivers and their insurance company to come to an agreement on who is at fault.

Another possible complication is that you may not be the only injured party. All insurance policies come with maximum coverage limits. This means that in an accident, the insurance company will be required to pay out total damages only up to the policy maximum, regardless of how many or how serious the injuries are. What this means is that your injuries will have to be paid from the same money as all the other injured parties and there may not be enough to cover everyone’s injuries fully.

Family members may not be covered

The above information does not apply to passengers who live with and are related to the driver. As the most common passengers in a car are immediate family, it’s important to understand what that means for you and your family.

In New York State, your spouse can sue you, but the insurance company does not have to defend you or pay the claim for your injuries. To find out what that means for you and your spouse, take a look at my post on Supplemental Spousal Liability Insurance.

Is a passenger always completely innocent?

A passenger can not be found at fault for an accident. This means that even if you are making conversation and the driver turns his eyes away from the road to look at you, you do not share the blame for the accident. There is however something called comparative fault. In this situation an insurance company will argue that you knowingly accepted a risky situation and are therefore your compensation should be reduced. A common example of this is driving in the car with a friend that you know has had too much to drink.

Don’t take a chance, seek help

As you can see, while in theory a passenger’s claim should be easy, when insurance companies are involved, being unprepared or taking a do-it-yourself approach will almost always lead to not receive fair compensation. I have been helping my friends and neighbors in Putnam County fight for the fair compensation they deserve for over 40 years. If you’ve been in an accident, contact me for a free consultation.

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