Car Accident Claims: Basic Terms Defined

Whether you're making an insurance claim or filing a personal injury lawsuit, get familiar with the language of a car accident case.

If you've been involved in a car accident, and you're filing an insurance claim or lawsuit, you could find yourself quickly immersed in a world where insurance adjusters and personal injury attorneys speak a specialized language. They have the special training to understand what all this means, but it may not be so clear to you. This glossary of basic terms should help you decipher some of the language common to car accident cases.

Actual Cash Value. In the context of a vehicle damage claim after a car accident, this is another term for the "market value" of the car. It's measured by what the car could have been sold for right before it was damaged or destroyed. Actual cash value usually comes up when a vehicle is deemed a "total loss" (another term that's defined below) after an accident. In that situation, the insurance company will pay the owner an amount equal to the vehicle's actual cash value, and won't pay to get the car fixed. Learn more about vehicle damage and actual cash value.

Burden of Proof. This is a reference to who has the responsibility of proving what happened in a given case. In a car accident case, the plaintiff (the person bringing the claim or lawsuit) has the burden of proof to establish that the other party is liable for causing the accident or injury.

Comparative/Contributory Negligence (Joint Fault). A car accident may not be the fault of one driver alone. Perhaps one driver was moving too quickly to stop, while another was hanging out too far into an intersection before trying to turn. When both parties are at fault in an accident, a court or insurance adjuster will attempt to apportion fault, and recovery will be reduced based on a party's comparative negligence. More: Comparative and Contributory Negligence in Car Accident Cases.

Liability. Liability is sorted out by determining who is at fault for a car accident -- and therefore who is responsible for any losses (damages) suffered by the people involved in the crash. Liability for a car accident can be established in a number of ways, including through police reports, witness statements, scene evidence, vehicle damage, and evidence of a traffic violation.

Negligence. A person is negligent when he or she unintentionally fails to meet a legally imposed duty of care. If this negligence causes damage, then liability for those damages will follow. (The intentional violation of a duty of care will still result in liability, but for an "intentional tort.") In the context of a car accident case, negligence occurs when a driver breaches the duty of care by failing to operate a vehicle in a reasonable and safe manner. Learn more about negligence and fault for an accident.

Negligence Per Se. This is a term used to describe an act that is careless in and of itself, and once the commission of the act is established, no further evidence of fault needs to be shown. In a car accident case, a driver can be deemed "negligent per se" when he or she breaks a traffic law. For instance, if a person is driving at twice the posted speed limit, or driving the wrong way down a one-way street, and then causes an accident, negligence is pretty much established. While a driver's negligence per se does not translate into an automatic win for the other side, it is generally very difficult for the negligent per se driver to dig out of this presumption.

Settlement. A car accident settlement is a monetary payment offered outside of the formal legal process in order to resolve all claims related to the accident -- both the vehicle damage and the personal injury sides of the case. If you sign a settlement release, you will waive your legal rights arising out of the incident and will not be able to bring suit over the crash, even if you later learn that your losses were worse than you first thought.

Total Loss. After a car accident, a vehicle is deemed a "total loss" when it either cannot be repaired, or when the cost of repair would exceed the value of the car. In this situation, an insurance company will generally offer the actual cash value of the car (see "Actual Cash Value" entry above).

Uninsured/Underinsured Motorist Insurance (UIM). Many states require drivers to carry uninsured/underinsured motorist (UIM) coverage as part of an automobile insurance policy. This provides coverage in situations where you have been hit by another driver who either has no insurance or not enough insurance to cover your losses arising from the accident.

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