After most car accidents, figuring out whether a driver is covered under a car insurance policy isn't usually necessary. The other driver will typically be covered by liability insurance, you'll have your own coverage, and that's all you'll need to know. But disputes over liability coverage do crop up after some car accidents. Most of these disputes revolve around whether the driver or vehicle in the accident fits into any of the specific categories that may be included or excluded from a liability policy. Below is a quick guide to common inclusions and exclusions. (Learn more about different types of car insurance coverage.)
Named insured.The named insured is the person or people named in the policy. Liability policies cover named insureds no matter what car they are driving.
Spouse. Even if a spouse of the named insured is not named on a policy, auto liability insurance almost always covers the spouse as well, while driving any car. If the couple no longer live together, however, the policy will not cover accidents caused by a spouse not named on the policy unless that spouse was driving the covered vehicle with the permission of the named spouse. (See "What Vehicles Are Covered?" below.)
Other relative. Any licensed driver living in the household with the named insured who is related to the insured by blood, marriage, or adoption -- usually including a legal ward or foster child -- is typically covered regardless of what car he or she is driving.
Anyone driving the insured vehicle. Any person who is using, with permission, a vehicle specifically named in the policy is covered. So, someone who steals the car is not covered because the thief was not using it with permission. The permission question also comes up if, for example, a teenager lets another teen drive a car without the parent owner's permission. In that case, an insurer might argue that the parent's policy does not cover the unrelated teenager who was driving. (Learn more about when you're liable for someone else's driving.)
Some auto policies also exclude coverage for an employee using an employer's personal car for business. In that case, though, a person injured in an accident could probably file a claim for compensation under the business's liability insurance.
Named vehicles. Any vehicle named in the liability coverage declaration is covered. An accident in a vehicle not named in the declaration is covered only if a named insured (see above) was driving.
Added vehicles. Any car, utility vehicle (see below), or other vehicle with which the named insured replaces the original named vehicle, and any additional vehicle the named insured owns during the policy period, is also covered. Some policies, however, cover replacement or additional vehicles only if the insured person notifies the company of the new or different vehicle within 30 days after it is acquired.
Temporary vehicles. Coverage extends to any car not owned by the named insured, or by another resident of the household, used as a temporary replacement—including rental cars -- for any insured vehicle that is out of use because it needs repair or service, or has been destroyed.
Utility vehicles. Most policies cover an insured person driving a few types of vehicles somewhat larger than a normal passenger car, but only up to a limit. This usually means coverage is limited to a sport utility vehicle, pickup, flatbed, delivery, or panel truck to a certain rated load capacity stated in the policy. Larger vehicles might be covered if they are specifically listed in the owner's individual policy. The same holds true for a motorcycle: To be covered, it must be specifically named in the policy. Most policies, however, do not cover utility vehicles while used for business.
To learn more about factors that could affect a car accident injury claim, and what to expect at every step in your case, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).