Driving a car comes with risks. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, in one recent year, 128,420 traffic crashes took place across the state. Nearly 1,200 people died in these crashes and over 78,000 were injured.
Getting into a car accident can change a person’s life completely. If you suffer serious injuries, you may face lifelong physical limitations or health complications. You might lose the ability to work, or cannot engage in the same type of work you did before your accident. The pressure of high medical bills can make you feel like you’re drowning and have no way out. Unfortunately, even many people who have health insurance end up with a pile of medical bills they can’t pay due to high deductibles and coinsurance amounts.
Across the United States, the number one reason people give for having to file for personal bankruptcy protection is medical bills. You don’t have to be one of those people though. Pennsylvania law provides you with a potential way to receive compensation for the damages you’ve suffered in a car accident through a personal injury lawsuit against the person who caused you harm.
Types of Pennsylvania Auto Insurance
Under Pennsylvania law, drivers choose one of two types of automobile insurance—”full tort liability” or “limited tort liability” coverage. Depending on the type of auto insurance you carry, your ability to recover damages in a lawsuit varies.
Full Tort Liability Insurance
If you carry full tort liability insurance, you may generally bring a lawsuit against the person or entity at fault for causing your car accident. In addition to recovering costs for the tangible monetary damages (so-called “economic” damages) you’ve suffered, you can also claim “non-economic” damages for harms you sustained like pain and suffering and impacts on your personal relationships.
Limited Tort Liability Auto Insurance
Also known as no-fault coverage, choosing limited tort liability insurance restricts your ability to recover damages from the “at fault” party. Instead, your own insurance pays for your economic damages (up to the amount of the policy); you cannot sue the “at fault” party for any excess economic damages, or for any non-economic damages, unless you have suffered a “serious injury.” Pennsylvania’s Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Law (MVFRL) defines “serious injury” as “a personal injury resulting in death, serious impairment of body function or permanent serious disfigurement.”
In practice, this means that the loved ones of someone who died who carried limited tort liability insurance could file a wrongful death lawsuit on their behalf. In situations where the victim lived, that person could only file a personal injury suit and recover non-economic damages if they experienced a serious impairment of a body function or permanent serious disfigurement.
Many people suffer severe injuries that do not rise to this statutory definition. When choosing your coverage, weigh this fact carefully. Although you will pay a lower monthly or annual premium for limited tort liability coverage, the benefits you will receive if you are injured in a car wreck will be limited and your recovery will also be lower.
If your insurance company fails to pay legitimate medical expenses that you can show are related to your car accident injuries, you have the option of filing a lawsuit against it, but again, you may still only recover the amount of your provable economic injuries unless you can show your injury meets the legal definition of a serious injury.
Regardless of which type of insurance you carry, it is critically important that you document the cost of your injuries. This includes the cost of any ambulance transportation, your initial hospital stay (surgeons’ and other doctors’ fees, x-rays, laboratory tests, diagnostic testing such as MRI’s, and medications administered to you), follow up appointments after your release, therapy (such as mental health, physical, occupational, or speech), medical devices like canes or wheelchairs, prescriptions, and any rehabilitation services, either inpatient or outpatient, you require for your recovery.
Also be sure to keep track of any wages you lose due to having to miss work, both for your initial hospitalization and for treatment and follow up care after you’ve returned to work. In addition to your actual wages, you should also document any lost tips, commissions, or retirement contributions your work absences have caused you to miss out on.
Opening medical bills depress anyone, but take a breath, steel yourself, and open them, then tuck them away in a safe place. Without proper documentation of your monetary outlay, you won’t recover it in a lawsuit.
The Statute of Limitations
State law establishes a time by which you must file your lawsuit following your accident—what’s known as the statute of limitations. Typically for personal injury suits, Pennsylvania dictates that plaintiffs file them within two years of the date of the incident (your accident).
But limited tort liability coverage throws a bit of a wrench into the calculus. In some cases, it is not apparent that an injury is “serious” as defined in Pennsylvania law until long after the accident as the effects of what might seem like a minor injury often increase in severity over time. Taking that into consideration, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has held that those with limited tort liability insurance have two years from the date they discover how badly they’ve been injured, rather than a hard two years from the date of the injury itself to file a personal injury lawsuit.
If you were injured, contact a competent Pennsylvania car accident attorney right away. While two years may seem like a long time, as you go about the work of recovering, time can slip away from you. These kinds of lawsuits are complicated and the sooner you retain an attorney, the sooner they can begin work on your case and the sooner you can resolve it and receive the financial compensation to which you’re entitled.
If you file your lawsuit late, it’s almost guaranteed that the other party will ask the court to dismiss it in its entirety, which the court will certainly do. That leaves you holding the bag for the entire cost of your injuries that someone else was responsible for and could be held legally liable for simply because you failed to file on time. Don’t make that mistake.
Who Is At Fault?
To hold someone legally liable, you of course have to show that they were at fault. In a personal injury suit that means you have to show they were negligent by proving four different elements by a preponderance of the evidence, or that it was more likely than not the case. Note that this is different than the much higher the beyond a reasonable doubt standard of proof that is required for a criminal conviction.
Some behaviors show negligence on their face—they are negligent per se. This includes breaking traffic laws. The Pennsylvania traffic code sets forth the rules drivers are to follow every time they get behind the wheel of a vehicle—everything from licensing requirements to which side of the road to drive on. Speeding and driving while intoxicated constitute negligence per se.
A driver’s failure to obey these rules can be used against them in a personal injury lawsuit. The idea behind negligence per se is that it is always negligent to break traffic rules and that simply breaking them establishes negligence without having to move on to proof of any of the elements below
The first thing you have to show in a personal injury suit is that the person who caused your injuries had a duty to you. In cases resulting from car accidents, this is pretty simple to do. All drivers have a duty to all other drivers to safely operate their vehicles, to not unreasonably endanger others on the road, and to follow traffic rules. Simply by showing the person was driving, you’ve shown they owed you a duty.
After you’ve established that the person had a duty (slam dunk), you must then demonstrate that they breached that duty. This is an area for argument in car accident cases. Yes, breaking the law is negligent and shows a breach, but can you prove that the other driver broke the law? What if you believe the person was speeding, but there are no cameras around? You say the other driver ran a stop sign in a rural area. Can you prove it? Other party swerved into your lane? Prove it. This is where car accident lawyers prove their mettle.
Of course if there are witnesses to your accident, they may be helpful to your case and can be used to bolster your claim that the other driver breached his duty. Witnesses can give lay opinions as to the speed of vehicles, their descriptions, and whether or not someone appeared to be driving recklessly. But there aren’t always people standing around or driving near enough to you to see what happened during your accident.
In those cases, law enforcement officers or accident reconstruction specialists can help figure out exactly what happened. Evidence gathered from the scene of the accident, including photos and diagrams, can be useful. How two cars came to rest after a collision, skid marks, damage to surroundings, and the amount, type, and location of vehicle damage can all be used to determine how an accident occurred. In some cases, the injuries you end up with can also be used as evidence of what happened.
To receive compensation for an injury, you have to show that you actually have an injury. Medical records, and documentation of an ambulance ride if it was necessary can show you were injured. It’s also always a good idea to take photos of the injuries you suffered.
You must also show that the other driver’s breach of duty actually caused your injuries. This is usually a pretty easy thing to do. You’re injured in a way you weren’t before. The other driver messed up and caused an accident. Straightforward.
Argument comes in when you may have had a similar injury before the accident. The issue is not whether or not you were injured, but whether this particular incident caused it. Maybe you had an old injury that was inflamed by the accident, but not caused by it. If you now have back pain, but have previously been treated for a back injury, the other party will almost certainly argue that he wasn’t the cause of your pain
You’ll then have to go about attempting to prove that your pain is worse or different or in a different location than your earlier condition. Medical records and your own testimony can be useful in showing this, but you can bet that if the defendant knows or can find out during the pendency of your case that you’ve been treated previously, that fact will be used to try to deny that he caused your injury.
Many (in fact, most) personal injury cases are settled through negotiations out of court and never go before a jury. If that’s the case, the parties come to some agreement as to who was at fault and agree to an amount owed. But if negotiations don’t lead to a deal, the case will be heard by a jury. In a jury trial, the jurors are the triers of fact. They listen to the evidence and determine the truth of the case. They decide how much weight to put on each witness’s testimony and how much credibility to afford each of them.
The job of jurors is to use the law given to them by a judge to determine responsibility and, if they decide the defendant is at fault, to assign an amount of damages based on the evidence they’ve heard.
How a Car Accident Attorney Can Help
Injuries from a car accident can leave victims with long term physical and mental health issues as well as a mountain of crushing debt. Do not face your injuries alone. A car accident lawyer can explain your rights and help fight for your financial recovery while you heal from your injuries and move on from the trauma of a car accident.