After any kind of traffic accident in Pennsylvania, if you've been injured and/or incurred significant damage to your vehicle, you probably want to understand your options for getting compensated for your losses. In this article, we'll discuss a few Pennsylvania laws that could have a big impact on your case.
(Important note on no-fault: Pennsylvania is a "choice" no-fault car insurance state. That means, if you choose no-fault coverage at the time your car insurance policy is purchased, after a car accident you typically need to file a claim under your own personal injury protection coverage to get compensation for medical bills and other financial losses, regardless of who caused the crash. Only if your injury claim meets certain prerequisites can you step outside of no-fault and bring a claim directly against the at-fault driver. The discussion in the following two sections presumes that you're able to do that (or that you opted out of no-fault at the time you purchased car insurance coverage). For details on Pennsylvania's "choice" no-fault rules, skip to the last section of this article.)
A "statute of limitations" is a law that sets a time limit on your right to bring a lawsuit. If you miss the time limit set by this law and you try to file your case after the deadline has already passed, the Pennsylvania court system is almost certain to dismiss your case, unless some rare exception applies to extend the deadline.
In Pennsylvania, as in most states, the statute of limitations that will affect a car accident lawsuit is the same as the larger one that applies to most personal injury cases. Specifically, 42 Pennsylvania Code section 5524 says that "an action to recover damages for injuries to the person or for the death of an individual caused by the wrongful act or neglect or unlawful violence or negligence of another" must be brought within two years.
That’s a very long-winded way of saying that, when a car accident occurs, if anyone was injured or killed -- including a driver, passenger, motorcycle rider, bicyclist, or pedestrian -- any lawsuit over the accident must be filed within two years.
But when does the "clock" start running for purposes of the statute of limitations? For an injury case, the date that matters is the date of the accident. But if the car accident caused someone’s death, and the family or other representative of the deceased person wants to bring a wrongful death lawsuit against the driver who caused the crash, the "clock" starts running from the date of the victim’s death, and that date might be different from the date of the accident.
From a strategy standpoint, it makes sense to leave yourself plenty of time to file a lawsuit, even if you’re confident your case will be resolved through a car insurance settlement. At the very least, you’ll have more leverage during settlement discussions if the other side knows you have the option of taking the case to court. If the filing deadline is approaching, you may want to discuss your situation with an experienced Pennsylvania car accident lawyer.
If the other driver was entirely at fault for your car accident, the result is usually predictable: the other driver (through their insurance carrier) will pay to compensate you for medical bills, lost wages, and other losses you suffered. But what happens if you were partly at fault for the crash?
Pennsylvania follows a "modified comparative fault" rule when both parties are found to share blame for an accident. In most car accident cases, the jury is asked to calculate two things based on the evidence: the total dollar amount of the plaintiff's damages, and the percentage of fault that belongs to each party. Under the modified comparative fault rule, the plaintiff's damages award is reduced by a percentage equal to his or her share of fault.
For instance, suppose that in your case, the jury decides your total damages award should be $100,000 (including your medical bills, lost income, vehicle damage, and "pain and suffering"). But the jury also decides you are 40 percent responsible for the accident (maybe you were speeding). Under Pennsylvania’s comparative fault rule, you are entitled to get 60 percent of the $100,000 total, or $60,000 -- still a significant sum, but not as much as the grand total of your damages.
One important note: Since Pennsylvania is a "modified" comparative fault state, you will receive nothing at all if you are found to be more than 50 percent at fault for the crash. This is different from the rule in "pure" comparative fault states, where you can recover damages when you're more at fault than the other party. Bottom line: In Pennsylvania, you must be no more than 50 percent at fault in order to recover damages from any other at-fault party after a car accident.
Not only does the comparative negligence rule bind Pennsylvania judges and juries (if your car accident case makes it to court), it will also guide a car insurance claims adjuster when he or she is evaluating your case. A claims adjuster makes decisions based on what is likely to happen in court, after all. But don't let that prevent you from pursuing an auto accident settlement or lawsuit. Instead, talk to an attorney about your situation and your best course of action.
You can read the full text of this rule at Pennsylvania General Assembly Statutes section 7102.
As touched on above, Pennsylvania is one of a few states that follow some version of a "choice" no-fault car insurance scheme. That means, if no-fault coverage is chosen, injured drivers and passengers must typically turn first to their own personal-injury-protection car insurance coverage to get compensation for medical bills, lost income, and other out-of-pocket losses after a crash, regardless of who might have been at fault. A claim against the at-fault driver is only possible in certain scenarios. Get the details on the Pennsylvania no-fault car insurance rules.