If You're In a Car Accident and Uninsured

If you don’t carry mandatory car insurance, you could face penalties even if the accident wasn’t your fault.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you're driving without valid car insurance and you're involved in a car accident, here's what to know at the outset:

  • The fact that you're an uninsured driver doesn't have any effect on a key element: who was at fault for the accident.
  • If you're found at fault, you'll likely be personally on the financial hook for any injuries and vehicle damage resulting from the crash (since you don't have an insurance policy in place to cover those losses).
  • If the other driver is at fault for the accident, the fact that you're uninsured could limit your ability to get compensation for your car accident injuries and related losses.

What Should I Do After an Accident If I'm Uninsured?

The most important thing to do is stop and stay at the accident scene until you've taken proper action. There are consequences for driving without insurance, but those pale in comparison to the penalties (including criminal hit and run charges) that can result if you leave the scene of an accident without fulfilling your post-crash legal obligations—especially if anyone is hurt in the crash. Here are more steps to take:

  • Call emergency medical services if anyone seems to have suffered significant injury.
  • Call local law enforcement to the scene.
  • Exchange information with anyone involved in the accident.
  • Be careful what you say at the car accident scene. Don't admit fault for the accident, and don't discuss any details about the crash.
  • Get the names and contact information of any witnesses who may have seen what happened.
  • Take pictures of the accident scene, the position of the vehicles, and anything else that might help tell the story of how the accident happened.

Get more tips on what to do after a car accident.

It's important to keep things in perspective here. It's almost always against the law to drive without insurance (or without proof of "financial responsibility" for an accident), but the fact that you're uninsured isn't going to come into play when it comes to figuring out who was at fault for the accident.

What If the Uninsured Driver Isn't At Fault for the Car Accident?

If you were injured in a car accident caused by the other driver, there may still be certain restrictions on what (if anything) you can recover against that driver, if you didn't have your own car insurance.

Several states have some variation of a "No Pay, No Play" law. In those states, if you didn't have valid automobile insurance in place at the time of the accident, you're limited in the types of compensation you can receive for your injuries.

In a few states (like New Jersey) you can't recover anything at all against the at-fault driver. In states like California, you can't recover "non-economic" damages like compensation for pain and suffering, but you can still get reimbursed for your medical bills.

The reasoning behind "No Pay, No Play" laws is that if you don't have the required auto insurance that could provide full compensation to another person, then you shouldn't be able to claim the full benefits of someone else's insurance if you've been the victim of a car accident.

What If I'm at Fault for the Accident?

The answer here depends on whether you live in a no-fault car insurance state, or a state that follows traditional fault (or "tort") principles when it comes to car insurance.

If You Live In a No-Fault Insurance State

More than a dozen states follow some version of what's known as a "no-fault" car insurance system.

In a no-fault state, if a person is injured in a car accident, they're generally required to seek compensation for economic (out of pocket) losses directly from their own car insurance company. Only under limited circumstances can the injured person step outside of the no-fault system and file a lawsuit.

So, if you live in a no-fault state and you don't have insurance, even if you're at fault for the accident, the other driver can't automatically name you as a defendant in a lawsuit and seek compensation directly from you. Only in limited circumstances is this possible—specifically, where injuries are deemed "serious" or "significant" under the state's threshold definition, or when accident-related medical bills exceed a certain amount, usually at least a few thousand dollars.

If a car accident lawsuit is filed against you and you're uninsured, you could end up paying the injured person out of your own pocket. You may also be faced with hiring a lawyer at your expense, unless you want to try to defend the case yourself. It's no defense to these lawsuits to tell the court, "I can't pay that amount." If you're found liable after a trial and you're ordered to pay the other driver's damages, a judgment will be entered against you (more on this below).

If You Live in a "Fault" Car Insurance State

States that do not follow a "no-fault" insurance system—this means the vast majority of states—are called "tort" or "fault" states. In those states, if you cause a car accident and another person is injured, they can sue you for all categories of damages resulting from the car accident, including:

  • medical bills
  • lost wages
  • vehicle damage, and
  • physical and mental pain and suffering.

As we mentioned above, if you don't have an automobile liability insurance policy, you're personally responsible for paying these damages to the injured person. If the other driver obtains a judgment against you, they have a number of options available to try to get some or all of that amount satisfied, including garnishing your wages in some cases.

Penalties for Driving Without Car Insurance

If you're in a car accident and you're found to be driving without valid insurance (or otherwise violating your state's car insurance laws), you'll likely face a fine of hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In addition, the Department of Motor Vehicles in most states will impose penalties that include the suspension or revocation of your driver's license, usually for a period from a few months to one year.

In New York, for example, if your vehicle is uninsured and is involved in an accident:

  • the state's DMV will revoke your driver license and vehicle registration for at least one year
  • the state's traffic court will fine you up to $1,500, and
  • you'll need to pay the DMV a $750 civil penalty to restore your driver license.

Get more details on penalties for driving without insurance (from DrivingLaws.org).

Getting Help After a Car Accident

If you've been in a car accident while driving without insurance, you might be in for a fight on a number of potential fronts. If the other driver (or their insurance company) is trying to put the blame for the crash on you, there's a lot at stake for you financially, especially if the other driver was seriously injured. On the other hand, if you think the accident was the other driver's fault, you could be in for an uphill battle in trying to pursue an injury claim as an uninsured driver.

No matter the specifics of your situation, you might want to start by reaching out to a car accident lawyer in your area. An experienced attorney can consider the specific circumstances of your situation and explain your options.

Frequently Asked Questions On Car Insurance

Is it Illegal to Drive Without Insurance?

In most states, vehicle owners are required to carry certain minimum amounts of car insurance or comply with "financial responsibility" rules, meaning they need to demonstrate their ability to pay for injuries, vehicle damage, and other losses stemming from a car accident. And the overwhelming majority of vehicle owners meet these "financial responsibility" requirements by purchasing car insurance coverage. In a few states, vehicle owners have more unique options. In Virginia, for example, drivers can buy car insurance or pay an Uninsured Motor Vehicle fee.

What's the Cheapest Car Insurance?

The most cost-effective way to insure a vehicle while complying with the law is to buy car insurance coverage that meets the bare minimum of what's required in your state. In many states, that means buying only liability coverage (which applies to other people's injuries and vehicle damage resulting from an accident caused by you). While this strategy will save you money in the short term, keep in mind that:

  • liability insurance doesn't cover your own car accident injuries or vehicle damage, and
  • if you're at fault for a crash, and other people's accident-related losses exceed your liability coverage limits, you'll be on the financial hook for the difference.

What if Neither Driver Has Car Insurance?

After an accident in which both drivers are uninsured, there's usually more at stake on both sides when it comes to establishing fault for the accident. That's because the at-fault driver will find themselves on the personal financial hook for the other driver's car accident damages, and they'll also have to find a way to cover their own losses (hopefully they have health insurance to take car of any medical bills for car accident injuries).

Although keep in mind here that the "No Pay, No Play" laws we discussed above will likely apply to both drivers, meaning both may face difficulty getting compensation for the full spectrum of their losses resulting from the accident.

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