It is almost a daily feature when reading the news, car accidents happen everyday resulting in thousands of dollars and lives lost every year. A few months ago, there were five fatalities and dozens more injured in a “chain-reaction” crash in Pittsburgh involving a tour bus, tractor-trailers and a passenger vehicle. Whether the root of the accident lies in speeding, drinking, or distracted driving, someone recovering from damages due to a motor vehicle crash should be aware of the coverage offered through the limited tort option in Pennsylvania. Our Philadelphia car accident lawyers are here to explain the motor vehicle financial responsibility law, and the rights and recovery options available with a limited tort policy following a traffic accident.
What is the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Insurance Law?
When you are in an accident you have certain rights in Pennsylvania. Specifically, the Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility law defines and explains individual’s rights when they have been injured in a car or truck accident. It is important that you understand these laws because accidents happen when we least expect them, and these laws affect your right to receive compensation for your injuries with a tractor-trailer or other commercial vehicle.
The Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Insurance Law became effective on July 1, 1990 and provides basic minimum protection for accident victims. The law designates the election of tort options available for motorists to choose from. The first thing to note is that regardless of which type of insurance policy you choose, you are required by law to maintain liability insurance coverage. The minimum liability insurance coverage must be at least $15,000-30,000 for bodily injury, and $5000 for property damage, but will increase depending on the severity of your injury. Additionally, vehicle owners are required to purchase a minimum of $5,000 of medical benefits that cover medical bills related to an injury from a traffic incident.
Additionally, each insurer is required to send in writing the availability of full tort insurance and limited tort insurance, as well as inform you of the cost differentials. When you receive a notice from your insurer, you will have 20 days to complete the form and select which liability policy best suits your needs. If you fail to select a policy by the end of the second and final notice, you will be covered officially under the “full tort” insurance by the state of Pennsylvania. Under this law, it follows that if you are a parent and select full tort, then your kids will also have full tort coverage. Conversely, if you choose limited tort, then your kids will have limited tort coverage. Drivers involved in an accident without insurance altogether are considered to have limited tort coverage, as a sort of ‘punishment’, considering limited tort generally makes it harder to receive compensation for injuries.
Pennsylvania Limited Tort Option
The primary reason that someone chooses a limited tort option is that it is less expensive, saving up to fifteen percent off of the premium, despite the fact that it largely excludes coverage for non-monetary damage. Under limited tort, in order to receive compensation for physical injury or emotional distress, you would have to prove that you meet the criteria of a “serious injury” as defined by the law. This can sometimes prevent a victim from damage recovery as a serious injury includes death, and permanent disfigurement or impairment of a bodily function. Some examples of serious injury that courts across Pennsylvania have found to meet the definition include:
- Head injury
- Blurred and double vision
- Severe lower back pain
- Bilateral leg pain
- Muscle spasms
- Herniated disc
- Degenerative disc disease
The courts have looked at these injuries and many others to determine if these injuries impaired any bodily functions as a result of a motor vehicle accident. The focus is not on the injury itself, but on the resulting and sustained injury to a bodily function. The main stipulations the courts will base the decision on is what bodily function was impaired, and whether or not that impairment was actually serious. It is important to note that the courts have held that the injury does not need to be permanent for it to qualify as serious. If they determine that your sustained injuries were a direct causal result of the accident, you would be covered under your limited tort insurance policy your injuries.
Exceptions to the Limited Tort Option
There are several exceptions to the limited tort option that would allow an injured plaintiff to file a claim for noneconomic damages including pain and suffering. If you are insured, and meet the criteria under one of these exceptions, you will be able to file as if you have full tort insurance, which would entitle you to recover for physical pain and suffering.
Injured Passenger is a Minor in Uninsured Vehicle
The first exception applies if one of the injured passengers is a minor of an uninsured vehicle. As stated earlier, if the owner of a registered vehicle does not acquire insurance, they will automatically be covered under limited tort. However, if the minor children of the owner are injured while occupying the uninsured vehicle, it has been deemed unfair to limit their recovery due to their parent’s choices. Thus, they will be entitled to full tort recovery, despite the fact that the parents will be bound by limited tort.
An injured occupant of a non-private passenger vehicle including a business vehicle, company vehicle or commercial vehicle including tractor-trailers and buses is another exception to limited tort. If a passenger or driver is injured while occupying one of these vehicles, they will be covered under the full tort option.
Injured Pedestrians and Cyclists
Pedestrians or cyclists are another class of individuals who may fall into an exception under the limited tort option if they are injured in a motor vehicle accident. There are an alarming number of pedestrians and cyclists who are injured every year as a result of motor vehicle accidents. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation reported that in 2018 there were a total of 201 pedestrian deaths and a total of 4,129 pedestrian injuries as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Furthermore, the pedestrian-related fatalities represent 16.9% of all traffic fatalities in Pennsylvania. Under the Pennsylvania Limited Tort Exception, when the owner of a motor vehicle accident was a pedestrian or on a bicycle then they may be able to recover under an exception to the limited tort general bar on pain and suffering claims. In these cases the individual’s automotive insurance policy will still provide medical coverage.
Victims of a DUI Accident
If you are a victim of a DUI or DWI, and the at-fault driver is convicted or accepts Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) for driving under the influence of alcohol or another controlled substance, then you can make a claim as if you had full tort insurance. It should be noted that this is limited to cases in which the negligent driver had a blood alcohol content above the legal limit of .08% at the time of the collision, and was actually convicted, have pleaded guilty, or were placed onto ARD. Nonetheless, there is a strong public policy behind this particular exception. The legislature has carved out this exception because of drivers who may be driving under the influence. By imposing full tort liability on drivers who cause an accident because of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they are not able to limit their civil liability.
Negligent Drivers Did Not Have Insurance
Other exceptions include if the negligent driver has not maintained financial responsibility as required by law, or does not have car insurance. Additionally, one will be able to sue for noneconomic damage if the at-fault vehicle is an out-of-state vehicle, such as if the vehicle involved in the accident was registered in New York, not Pennsylvania. It is important to note in these cases that this does not apply to vehicles owned by the federal government and therefore is not registered in any state. For example, if the operator of a U.S.P.S. truck was at fault for the accident, you would still be bound under limited tort insurance.
Motor Vehicle Defects
Another exception in which a person would be eligible for full tort recovery is if the accident was caused by a motor vehicle defect, such as a defective tire accident, not by the fault of either driver. In this case, it must be proven that the accident was a direct result of the negligence of the vehicle manufacturer, mechanic, distributor, or seller. The final exception is if the negligent driver intended to injure themselves or another driver, pedestrian or cyclist and either through their action or inaction, purposely caused the accident. However, in this exception, it is not sufficient simply for it to be intentional, but that the person must have acted or withheld from acting with the goal of causing harm.
Limited tort generally acts as a restriction on your legal rights to receive compensation for your injuries from a car crash. Nonetheless, in all of the cases listed above, even if you have purchased limited tort insurance, you can file a claim for your injuries as if you had full tort coverage. Given the complexities of proving serious injury and the many exceptions of limited tort insurance, it is imperative to have a seasoned attorney on your side.
Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Truck Accident Lawyer Today
To schedule a private, no-cost evaluation, call the national truck accident lawyers at the law offices of Reiff Law Firm at (215) 709-6940 or contact us online. If the statute of limitations expires, your window of legal opportunity will close and you won’t be able to pursue a claim. So contact us today to see how we can make our experience work for you. You only pay if there’s a financial recovery.