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Legal Resources

October 12, 2017

Having the right attorney immediately after an accident may substantially impact how much compensation you receive for your injuries, pain and suffering.

How auto insurance works in Washington DC

Car insurance systems can be difficult for motorists to understand. There are two types of mandatory coverage: liability insurance and uninsured motorist insurance.

Liability insurance pays for damages inflicted on someone else in a crash caused by the insured person. Washington, DC requires all motorists to carry at least 25/50/10 coverage, which means up to $25,000 per person injured or killed, per accident, $50,000 total for all injuries or fatalities in a single accident, and $10,000 for property damage per accident. Motorists have the encouraged option of purchasing higher policy limits, as the cost of an accident can easily exceed those minimum limits.

Uninsured motorist coverage protects the insured person, his or her vehicle, and any passengers in the insured vehicle in the event of an accident caused by a motorist who does not have insurance. This also includes accidents caused by a hit-and-run driver who is never found; such a motorist is considered uninsured by default. The minimum uninsured motorist coverage in Washington, DC is $25,000 for bodily injury per person, $50,000 for bodily injury per accident and $5,000 for property damage per accident. Again, motorists have the option of purchasing higher policy limits.

There are several other types of insurance coverage that are optional in the District of Columbia. These include:

  • Collision and comprehensive: These types of insurance pay for damage to the insured vehicle on a no-fault basis. Collision coverage pays for damage caused in an accident, while comprehensive coverage pays for non-accident-related damage such as fire and vandalism. Motorists are not required to carry collision or comprehensive coverage by law; however, they are usually required by lienholders for financed vehicles.
  • Underinsured motorist covers injuries and property damage caused by a driver who has insurance, but not enough to pay for the full cost of the accident.
  • Rental car coverage and roadside assistance/towing coverage.

However, perhaps the most important type of optional coverage to understand is personal injury protection (PIP).

HOW PIP AFFECTS CAR ACCIDENT INSURANCE CLAIMS IN THE DISTRICT

Personal injury protection (PIP) is an optional type of coverage in Washington, DC. It pays for medical expenses, property damage and other bodily injury losses for the person who holds the policy, regardless of fault, up to the policy limit. PIP also may cover a percentage of lost wages and funeral and burial expenses, again up to the policy limit. The tradeoff involved with PIP is that, in general, a motorist who elects to file a PIP claim with their own insurance company (called a first-party claim) cannot then file a third-party claim with another driver's insurance company, nor file a lawsuit against the at-fault driver.

Foregoing PIP and pursuing compensation from the at-fault driver can help the injured person recover compensation for losses that are not covered by PIP, such as pain and suffering. However, such compensation is fault-based, meaning the injured person has to prove that another motorist was responsible for his or her injuries. Moreover, this compensation is effectively capped by the available insurance coverage; if the at-fault driver has only the minimum liability coverage and few or no assets, and the injured person does not have underinsured motorist protection, then the value of filing a third-party claim or civil lawsuit would be relatively low. However, if the at-fault driver has a high policy limit and/or substantial assets, the injured person has substantial underinsured motorist coverage, or the negligent party is someone other than a private motorist - such as a trucking company or vehicle manufacturer - then the potential recovery could be much higher.

Complicating matters is the fact that Washington, DC uses contributory negligence, which means that an injured person who is at all responsible for his or her own injuries cannot recover compensation in most cases. Even being as little as 5 or 10 percent responsible can be enough to bar recovery. As such, the injured person needs to weigh the potential larger recovery from filing a third-party claim or lawsuit against the possibility of being barred from recovery completely due to contributory negligence.

This choice must be made quickly: The insured driver has only 60 days from the date of the accident to decide whether to file a claim with their own insurance company for PIP benefits or to pursue a third-party claim or civil lawsuit against the at-fault driver.

There are some circumstances in which an injured person can claim PIP benefits and still file a third-party claim or civil lawsuit. These cases include injuries that cause:

  • Permanent and substantial scarring or disfigurement;
  • Permanent, medically demonstrable impairment that significantly affects the injured person's ability to perform usual daily activities or professional activities;
  • Medically demonstrable impairment that prevents the victim from performing all or substantially all of his or her usual daily activities for over 180 continuous days; or
  • Medical expenses, rehabilitation expenses or lost wages in excess of the amount of PIP benefits available.

A car accident attorney with a deep understanding of the laws and regulations at work in the District of Columbia can make a meaningful difference for victims in these circumstances. For example, an attorney can review the victim's case and advise whether it is more advantageous to claim PIP benefits or to forego them in order to pursue a third-party claim or civil lawsuit. Moreover, an attorney can help a victim to prove that his or her injuries meet one of the criteria listed above to file a lawsuit or third-party claim in addition to claiming PIP benefits.

COMPENSATION AVAILABLE FOR PEOPLE INJURED IN AUTO ACCIDENTS

Even a relatively minor auto accident can have significant implications for the life of an injured person. That's why the amount of damages (financial compensation) owed to the victim can easily be hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.

Compensatory damages are generally divided into two broad categories. Economic damages are associated with objectively verifiable losses tied to a specific dollar amount, such as:

  • Medical expenses arising from the accident, such as hospital bills, prescription medication, medical devices, and even travel costs to and from each medical appointment. These expenses can be particularly substantial if the injury requires surgery or long-term care.
  • Lost wages if the injured person is unable to work or needs to work reduced hours due to the injury. The amount of compensation needed for lost wages depends on the injured person's income, age and extent of physical limitations, among other factors.
  • Replacement services for household tasks that the injured person is no longer able to perform, such as childcare, cleaning, maintenance and yard work.
  • Modifications to a home or vehicle to accommodate a permanent disability.
  • Property damage, including damage to the victim's vehicle and any other personal property that may have been involved in the accident.

Other damages are known as non-economic damages, which means they are determined more subjectively and not attached to a specific, demonstrable dollar figure. Examples of non-economic damages include pain and suffering, loss of quality and enjoyment of life, emotional distress and loss of consortium.

Occasionally, car accidents can also result in an award of punitive damages, which are intended to punish particularly egregious or intentional acts. For example, accidents caused by motorists driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol sometimes lead to punitive damages.

It is common for insurance companies to offer a settlement in the immediate aftermath of an accident that only covers short-term costs, rather than the full cost of the injury. In order to claim full compensation for their injuries, people who are seriously hurt in accidents often need to consult an attorney. An experienced car accident lawyer can thoroughly review the effects that the injury has had on the victim's life and build a case for full compensation for those losses.