When we get behind the wheel, we don't expect to get into a car accident, even though we know crashes happen every day. And most drivers have the auto insurance coverage that is required by their state's laws. They keep up with their premium payments so their insurance isn't lapsed or cancelled. Unfortunately, not all drivers obey the law, and there are people on the road without auto insurance. If one of these drivers causes an accident, and you end up suffering an injury, what options do you have? Let's take a look at the possibilities.
Are You In a No-Fault Car Insurance State?
If you are in a state with a no-fault system of car insurance, you must look to your own insurance policy for claims of economic losses such as medical expenses, lost wages and replacement services to help you with your daily living needs.
(Note: Most states do not follow no-fault car insurance rules. Florida, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Utah are the only states that follow some version of a no-fault car insurance system.)
In a no-fault state, even when the other driver is at fault for the accident, you cannot pursue a claim against him or her for your economic damages, unless your state has an "economic threshold" in place and your losses exceed that threshold. So, your right to recover your economic damages is probably not affected by the other driver's fault if you are in a no-fault state. Instead, the amount of money you will be entitled to will be determined by your own auto insurance policy.
Are You In a Traditional Fault-Based State?
In states that follow a traditional fault-based system of car insurance, the insurance policy of the at-fault driver will usually apply to the losses of anyone injured by the at-fault driver's negligence, up to the limits of the policy. (Learn more: How Insurance Affects a Car Accident Case)
What this means is that as an injured person, you would have recourse against the at-fault driver's policy for your economic damages. When the at-fault driver is uninsured, however, there is obviously no insurance policy to claim against. This is why your own insurance company offers you what is known as "uninsured motorist" coverage.
As the name indicates, "uninsured motorist" (UIM) coverage protects you from the risk of being injured in an accident caused by an uninsured driver. For an additional premium cost, your insurance company will insure you for injuries and vehicle damage that you would otherwise claim against the offending driver's insurance policy, if he or she had maintained the insurance required by law, up to the limits of the UIM coverage you paid for. So, UIM coverage fills a critical void in cases where the at-fault driver is uninsured, and it makes sense to consider adding this kind of protection to your policy. (More: Will My Insurance Go Up Even If I Didn't Cause the Car Accident?)
What About Non-Economic Damages?
Beyond the kinds of economic damages discussed above, you may also want to pursue a claim against the uninsured at-fault driver for your non-economic damages, e.g. your pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss or diminution of the ordinary pleasures of life.
If the uninsured at-fault driver has assets sufficient to satisfy a judgment for your damages, you can sue him or her directly. Alternatively, you must again look to your own uninsured motorist coverage, which will determine the availability and amount of benefits to which you may be entitled. Your rights will further be determined by whether you are in a fault or no-fault state; in fault states, there will likely be no threshold level of injury that must be sustained before a non-economic damages claim may be made, whereas no-fault states commonly require you to prove a certain seriousness or permanency of injury (or show that a certain threshold of medical expenses has been met in terms of dollar amount) before you can look to make a claim for non-economic damages.
For information on this same issue, but viewed from the other side of the liability question, check out our companion article What If I'm Sued for a Car Accident and I Have No Car Insurance?