If you own a motor vehicle in Montana that you plan to register and drive, it must be insured as required by state law. Failure to have insurance can mean fines and, in cases of repeat violations, even jail time. Going without insurance will also prove costly if you're in a wreck that's your fault.
We start with an overview of Montana's fault-based insurance system. From there, we'll explain what kinds of insurance coverages are required by Montana law, who and what vehicles are covered, why those coverages likely aren't sufficient to protect you, and the consequences you might face if you don't have the required insurance.
Montana, like most states, has adopted a fault-based motor vehicle insurance system. When a wreck happens, the driver who's legally responsible must compensate those who are injured or whose property is damaged. To make sure that drivers are able to pay, Montana requires vehicle owners to buy certain kinds of auto insurance.
If you're hurt in an accident that's not your fault, you can file an insurance claim or a lawsuit against the responsible driver. To collect compensation for your injuries ("damages," in the language of the law), you'll need to show that the other driver was to blame. This means proving that the other driver was negligent (careless), and that their negligence caused your injuries and other losses.
Montana's motor vehicle insurance requirements can be found in Mont. Code § 61-6-103 (2023). Any motor vehicle that's registered and driven on public roads must be insured by a liability insurance policy having at least these coverage limits:
You're required to have proof of insurance in your car. This proof can take the form of a physical insurance card, or an electronic version that's available on your phone. (See Mont. Code § 61-6-302(2) (2023).)
Your auto liability policy covers (that is, it provides insurance to pay the financial obligations of) each person who's named as an insured in your policy. Most policies also cover your spouse and other relatives living in your household. If you give someone permission to drive your car (what the law calls a "permissive user"), your liability policy typically covers them, too.
In addition to the auto identified in your policy, your liability insurance probably covers rental cars and loaner vehicles. If you trade your car for a new one, your new auto should be covered for a brief period (usually just a few days) until you notify your insurer of the replacement. Make sure to let your insurance agent know you have a new car as soon as possible.
Liability insurance pays for personal injuries and property damages suffered by other drivers, or by passengers, pedestrians, cyclists, and others, in a wreck that's your fault, up to your coverage limits. Importantly, your liability insurance won't pay you for your injuries or damaged property. We'll talk more below about where you can look to get your losses covered.
Here are some of the common damages and losses liability insurance will cover:
Punitive damages—damages that are meant not to compensate an injured person but to punish a wrongdoer—typically aren't covered by liability insurance. If you're sued over an at-fault accident and the plaintiff (the injured person who's suing you) asks for punitive damages, speak to your attorney right away.
Yes, probably so. If you cause a car wreck in Montana, you're on the financial hook for all resulting injuries and other losses—whether or not you've got enough insurance.
A wreck that causes moderate or severe injuries will burn through Montana's minimum liability coverages in no time. Higher policy limits can help to protect your personal assets. Speak to your insurance agent about how much liability insurance is right for you.
In addition to higher liability limits, you might consider adding protections that are optional under Montana law. Here are a few examples.
Again, speak to your insurance agent about whether these (or other) insurance coverages are right for you.
Because Montana is a fault-based insurance state, you have some options when it comes to getting compensation for your injuries. Typically, you can proceed in one of three ways:
In some situations, it will make sense to file a claim for benefits under your own auto insurance, if you have the necessary coverage. If you were to blame for the wreck, your collision coverage likely will be the only way to get your car repaired or replaced. If your car's a total loss but it's worth less than what you owe on it, you'll want to look to your gap insurance to pay the difference.
Even if the other driver caused the accident, you still might decide to bring a first party claim. For instance, it likely will take some time to settle your claims against the other driver. How are you supposed to get your car repaired in the meantime? You can bring a first-party claim under your collision insurance to pay for the repairs, and add that amount to the compensation you seek from the responsible party.
In most cases, you'll bring a third-party insurance claim against the at-fault driver. If they have enough liability insurance, you can get compensation for your medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, emotional distress, and more.
The drawback to a third-party claim is that you must prove the other driver was legally responsible for the accident. If you were rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light, proving fault won't be a problem. If the collision happened at an intersection and both you and the other driver claim you had the right of way, proving liability will be more difficult. It can take months—if your claim doesn't settle, well over a year—to get compensated for your injuries.
Most car accident claims settle, and yours probably will, too. If you can't settle, you might decide to file a personal injury lawsuit against the responsible driver. Filing a suit should be your last resort. Lawsuits are stressful, costly, and time-consuming, and if you have to go to trial, you're putting your fate in the hands of a judge or jury.
On the positive side, filing your case in court shows that you're serious about getting fair compensation. The other driver's insurance company might decide to offer more money after you've filed.
If you choose to file your case in court, you must do so within Montana's personal injury lawsuit deadline, called a "statute of limitations." As a general rule, you have three years, usually from the date you were injured, to file your case in court. (Mont. Code § 27-2-204 (2023).) If you try to file after the deadline has expired, the court will have no choice but to dismiss your case.
Driving without insurance in Montana can prove costly, in more ways than one. For starters, and as mentioned above, you're liable for all losses and damages you cause. Without enough insurance, a wreck can mean financial disaster.
In addition, driving without the required insurance is a misdemeanor punishable by:
On conviction of a second or subsequent offense within a five-year period, the court must order the surrender of your motor vehicle registration and license plates. You won't be allowed to register your car until you can show proof of the required insurance.
For a fourth or subsequent offense within a five-year period, the court must also order that you surrender your driver's license. You won't be able to get your license reinstated until you've got the necessary liability coverage.
(See Mont. Code § 61-6-304 (2023).)
You might be tempted to try to handle your car accident claim on your own, without a lawyer's help. If the accident wasn't serious and your injuries were minor, you might be able to get a fair settlement by going it alone.
But if the facts are complicated, your injuries are serious, or there are complex legal issues involved, your best bet for a fair result will come from having an experienced car accident lawyer on your side. This is someone who understands Montana law, who knows how to deal with car insurance companies, and who's experienced filing court cases, should that be necessary.
If you're ready to move forward, here's how to find an attorney who's right for you and your case.