When you see an ad for auto insurance, or think about how you'd handle a traffic accident, chances are you imagine yourself behind the wheel. But, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 500,000 passengers were injured in car accidents in the United States in 2020 alone. So it's just as important to consider what you'd do if you were injured in an accident while riding as a passenger in someone else's vehicle.
In particular, injured passengers need to understand their options for filing an insurance claim. Depending on the facts, it can make sense to seek compensation through a policy covering one of the drivers, or through your own auto or health insurance. In this article we'll discuss what you need to know, including:
Whether you're a driver or a passenger, your first priority after a car accident should be making sure you and everyone else involved is okay. Check yourself first, then on the other people in your vehicle. You should also see how the people in other vehicles are doing, if you feel safe doing so.
In the confusion and shock that follows a crash it's not always easy to tell how serious car accident injuries are. If you think you or anyone else might need immediate medical attention, call 911 right away.
Once you're sure there's no imminent danger, you should gather all of the information you'll need for a potential insurance claim. Many of these steps are the same things a driver should do after an accident, including:
Once you leave the scene, make sure you receive any necessary medical care and save your bills and other records.
If you're injured in a car accident while riding as a passenger, you may be unsure where to file an insurance claim to cover your medical bills and other losses ("damages"). In this section we'll discuss how to decide between:
We'll also explain when you should consider filing multiple claims to cover your losses. (This section assumes you don't live in a no-fault car insurance state—we'll discuss that situation below.)
The big advantage of liability coverage is that it's most likely to fully compensate you for the losses you suffer in an accident. For example, you can receive money to make up for your pain and suffering, and for economic damages like lost wages.
The potential downside is that, like the name implies, you can only make a claim under a driver's liability insurance if that driver was at fault for the accident.
If determining liability becomes a sticking point, it may make sense to consult an attorney who can help you decide how to proceed with your claim. Or, if you have only minor injuries and economic losses, you could consider other options for compensation.
The first question to ask here is whether it makes sense to make the claim against your driver's liability insurance. The liability option has two important limitations:
If you can't (or don't want to) make a liability claim, you can see if you're entitled to compensation through the driver's Personal Injury Protection (PIP) or Medical Payments (MedPay) coverage. The advantage of these options is that, since you don't have to establish liability, you'll usually be compensated more quickly and with fewer administrative hassles. But the coverage they offer is less extensive than what you'd receive through liability coverage, both in terms of the kinds of losses they reimburse (you can't get compensation for "pain and suffering," for example) and the total dollar amounts of the coverage.
Learn more about PIP and MedPay, including who and what is covered and the differences between the two types of coverage (we'll also talk more about PIP insurance below, when we discuss how passenger-injury claims work in no-fault insurance states).
You can always use your health insurance to cover treatment for your car accident injuries. You may need to pay your health insurer back if your medical bills are eventually covered by the at-fault driver's liability insurance, through an injury settlement or after a successful lawsuit.
You may also be able to cover some of your costs through your own PIP or MedPay policy, if you have one. As we mentioned above, it's important to be aware of the limits on PIP and MedPay coverage, whether it's yours or someone else's.
Injured passenger aren't required to receive all of their compensation from one source.
For example, let's say you're injured as a passenger in a collision between Driver A and Driver B. Both drivers share some of the fault for the accident. If Driver A's liability policy doesn't provide sufficient coverage for your losses, you could pursue a claim under the policy of Driver B for the remainder of your claim.
Remember, though, that you can't recover more than what your car insurance claim is worth—at least when it comes to compensation for bills stemming from your car accident injuries. One policy will be allowed to offset whatever amount you recovered from the other policy. In other words, you don't get to "double dip."
It's a good idea to notify your own insurance company if you've been injured in an accident, even if you expect someone else's insurance to cover your losses. And remember that things will work differently if you're injured while riding as a customer in an Uber or Lyft vehicle.
So far we've been assuming you live in a state with "fault-based" insurance rules, where the costs of an accident are the responsibility of the person who caused the accident (and their insurance carrier). But about a dozen states require or prefer "no-fault" car insurance. In a no-fault car insurance state an injured passenger can still recover for their car accident-related losses, but there are usually limits on the kinds of losses that will be compensated.
States with no-fault car insurance regimes require the kind of personal injury protection (PIP) insurance we discussed above. When a driver is involved in a car accident, their own car insurance will pay for medical bills, lost earnings, and certain other crash-related expenses, regardless of who was at fault for the accident.
If you're injured as a passenger in a car accident in a no-fault car insurance state, you're probably covered under the no-fault or PIP coverage of the driver of the vehicle you were riding in. If you have your own car insurance coverage, that might apply too.
Perhaps the most important issue to consider here is which form of coverage would be considered "primary", meaning which policy would apply first to pay for your covered losses. The answer depends on which state you live in and the fine print of the applicable policies.
A big limit of no-fault is that non-economic losses like "pain and suffering" aren't recoverable in a no-fault/PIP claim. Only if their medical bills reach a certain dollar amount, or their injuries are deemed sufficiently serious under state thresholds, can an injured driver or passenger step outside the confines of a no-fault/PIP claim and:
Once the above two options are on the table, the claimant can now recover for the whole spectrum of their car accident-related losses, including pain and suffering.
Before you consider suing over your car accident injuries, you should file an insurance claim and begin the claims process. If you can be fully compensated through insurance then then there's no need to file a lawsuit.
Keep in mind that an insurance company expects to negotiate—their first settlement offer isn't the final word on how much they're willing to pay. But it makes sense to consider a lawsuit against the at-fault driver if their insurance carrier will not offer an amount that covers all of your damages (including non-economic damages like pain and suffering).
If the insurance company's final settlement offer is still less than you think is fair, then you'll have to decide if a lawsuit makes sense. This will depend largely on the severity of your injuries and the gap between the insurance company's offer and the amount of your damages. (See the sidebar for more information about the settlement process and determining the value of your claim.)
You should also be realistic about the potential downsides of filing a lawsuit. The legal process can take a long time and consume a lot of your attention and energy. And, while it offers you a chance to get the compensation you want (either through a jury verdict or a settlement once your case is underway), there's also the possibility that you'll be disappointed with the eventual outcome.
An experienced car accident attorney can assist you both with the claims process and with a lawsuit. In some cases the claims process is straightforward, and you might feel comfortable handling it yourself. But you should consider hiring an attorney if you have severe injuries and significant damages, or if you want help making your claim and negotiating with the insurance company.
Remember, too, that you don't necessarily have the same legal goals and interests as the person who was driving the vehicle you were in. Depending on the facts and your relationship with the driver, it may make sense for you to work with different attorneys.
If you're seriously considering a lawsuit then you'll almost certainly want to consult with a lawyer. An attorney who handles personal injury and car accident cases will be able to help you decide what kind of outcome you could expect from a lawsuit, and whether suing is a better option than accepting the insurance company's settlement. And, if you do decide to go ahead with a lawsuit, a good attorney can represent you in court and in negotiations with the other side's lawyers.
Learn more about what to ask before you hire an attorney.
As we've discussed, there's a lot to consider if you've been injured while riding as a passenger and are beginning the insurance claims process. You can learn more about what to do after a car accident and get answers to some common questions about insurance and the settlement process. Or, if you want to speak with someone about the circumstances of your accident, you can get in touch with an attorney using the features on this page.