Do I Need a Lawyer for a Car Accident That Wasn't My Fault?

Even if you didn’t cause your car accident, you may still need a lawyer to protect your rights and help you get the best result.

By , J.D. · Villanova University School of Law
Updated by David Goguen, J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

In some situations, it might make sense to try to handle a car accident claim on your own. But even when you're certain that you're not at fault for the accident, you'll likely want an attorney's help to ensure the best outcome. In this article, we'll discuss a few common scenarios that could make a car accident lawyer's assistance essential, including when:

  • the accident left you with significant injuries and costly vehicle damage
  • despite your confidence that you're not to blame for the accident, the other side isn't accepting fault
  • the insurance company is digging in for a fight on key issues like the seriousness of your injuries and the validity of your medical care, or
  • the car insurance or legal fault rules in your state make things particularly complicated.

The Accident Resulted In Significant Losses

If you or anyone else involved in the car accident came away with serious injuries or significant property damage, you may want to at least consult with a lawyer, regardless of who seems to be at fault for the crash. Any time a person or a car insurance company has the potential to be liable for a large amount of money, it's good to make sure your rights are protected.

If you try to make a sizable (but justified) claim with the other driver's insurer (this is known as a "third party claim" car insurance claim) to cover all your losses, there's a good chance the at-fault driver's insurance company will either:

  • dispute liability, or
  • deny that your losses are as extensive as you claim they are.

And if the other driver has extensive accident-related losses ("damages" in the language of the law), they may try to point the finger at you, even if they know they're responsible for the accident. That may be fine if you've got ample insurance, but if the other driver's losses exceed the limits of your coverage, you could be on the financial hook yourself. (Get the basics on how car insurance coverage works after an accident.)

What If the Settlement Offer Already Seems Fair?

A lawyer is also a good idea even when the insurance company appears to be willing to pay what they should. As a condition of accepting an insurance company's car accident settlement offer, you must promise not to sue them or the driver they represent. Before you agree to this, especially when your car accident injuries are serious, you might want an attorney to review the settlement terms against the specifics of your losses.

And keep in mind that the larger the claim, the more evidence the insurance adjuster will likely want. If you're claiming medical bills in the amount of $1,500, a simple invoice from your doctor might be adequate. But what if your accident results in:

  • $25,000 worth of medical bills
  • extensive time missed at work, and
  • significant "pain and suffering" resulting from your injuries and their impact on your life.

In that situation, the adjuster might ask for an independent medical exam, extensive documentation, and other evidence to support all aspects of your claim. An attorney can handle these requests, pull together all necessary documentation and proof for all your losses, and position you for the best outcome.

If Fault for the Accident Is In Dispute

You might have no doubts that the other driver caused the accident, but if you and the other driver have different stories, it might result in an ongoing investigation by each insurance company. And if enough money is at stake, your car accident may result in litigation (meaning a lawsuit is filed in court).

If there's a lot at stake and neither side is ready or willing to accept liability for the accident, hiring a lawyer may be necessary.

The Car Insurance Company Is Hassling You

You could encounter a car insurance company that's not easy to deal with or that even acts in bad faith. This could involve anything from asking you to jump through a number of hoops before you get your settlement check, to unreasonably delaying a decision on the accident or the sending of a check.

In some instances, especially when you're making a third party claim with the other driver's insurance company, the insurer may downplay evidence showing that you were not at fault for the accident, and make a lowball settlement offer that doesn't come close to covering your losses.

Fault Rules In Your State Could Make Things Tricky

Negligence is the fault theory that forms the basis of liability in almost every car accident case. But it's not always true that all of the negligence lies with one driver. In the rare instance that a car accident lawsuit goes to trial, the jury or the judge needs to sort out or "apportion" liability according to the state's fault rules.

There are two main types of negligence theories they can use to do this: comparative negligence and contributory negligence.

Most states use comparative negligence, and there are two main versions:

  • Pure comparative negligence: Plaintiffs can recover damages even if their share of fault exceeds the defendant's. If a plaintiff has $100,000 in damages, but is 45% at fault, they can still recover $55,000.
  • Modified comparative negligence: The ability to recover depends on if a plaintiff's degree of fault exceeds a specific threshold, such as 50%. In some states, a plaintiff can only recover damages from a defendant if the plaintiff's fault is less than 50%. So if the plaintiff is 25% at fault and they want $100,000 from the defendant who is 75% at fault, the plaintiff gets $75,000. But if the plaintiff is 55% at fault, the plaintiff gets nothing.

A harsher rule known as "contributory negligence" means a plaintiff can only recover from the defendant if the defendant is 100% at fault for the plaintiff's harm, and the plaintiff is without fault. Thankfully, only a few states still apply the contributory negligence legal standard.

It's important to note that courts use these rules if a car accident case goes to trial, but insurance companies also keep them in mind when negotiating settlements. So, depending on the facts of your case, even seemingly minor details could make a major difference in how much you might recover. If you're in a modified comparative or contributory negligence state, you might need an attorney to make sure you're getting the best result.

Next Steps After a Car Accident

Even when you think you're not at fault for a car accident, there are plenty of situations in which it's crucial to have an experienced legal professional on your side. Handling your car insurance claim on your own might not be a bad idea, at least initially. But if your claim hits some bumps—or a dead end—you might want to discuss your situation, and your options, with a lawyer.

Especially if your accident was serious and there's a lot at stake, at some point you'll need to present your most compelling story to the insurance company, the opposing attorney, or even a jury. That's a car accident lawyer's job, and they'll focus on getting you a fair result while you focus on getting better.

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