Passenger in Car Accident: Injury Compensation Settlement Options

Vehicle passengers may have several options for compensation after a traffic accident. Learn more about passenger car accident settlements.

Most of the time, when we’re thinking about car crashes and injury claims, we imagine two drivers.

Though both drivers may be hurt, one is usually more at fault for the accident than the other. The at-fault driver’s insurance company pays for most or all of the damages, and the insurance claim is resolved.

In reality, motor vehicle accident claims are rarely that simple. Most drivers will, at some point, have passengers in their cars. And in a car accident, passengers can be hurt just as easily as drivers. Imagine that you’re a passenger hurt in a car accident. Now, who’s responsible for your injuries?

As a passenger, you were probably not directly responsible for the accident. But did you contribute to your injuries in any way? The at-fault driver’s insurance company will likely compensate you for your injuries. But what if that driver is a close friend? What if they’re family? Can you pick which insurance policy to pursue?

There are more sources for injury compensation when you’re a passenger. But there are also more potential complications for your personal injury claim. We’ll look at some detailed examples of passenger car accident injury claims and potential settlement amounts.

Passenger Injury Claims: Who Pays?

Person filling out an auto insurance claim form

Passenger injury claims are the same as any other car accident victim. The responsible driver (or their insurance company) is liable for your medical bills, pain and suffering, and other damages.

Most injury claims settle before going to trial, even if the injured person files a lawsuit in pursuit of fair compensation.

You still need to prove the at-fault driver’s responsibility for the accident. Evidence of fault can come from a police report, photographs of the accident, surveillance camera footage, and other evidence you typically collect after a car accident.

Once you have established fault, the question of who pays will depend on your state’s law and the insurance policies of the people involved in the crash.

1. No-Fault States: Your Driver’s Insurance Policy (or Your Own)

A handful of states have mandatory no-fault auto insurance laws. In those states, auto insurance policies have personal injury protection (PIP) coverage that pays for the injuries to the insured and their passengers no matter who caused the auto accident.

In a no-fault state, your own policy (or the policy of the driver of the vehicle you’re in) will compensate you for your medical expenses. Keep in mind, though, that PIPs in no-fault states will not compensate you for the pain and suffering that results from your injury.

If your injuries are severe enough to meet the no-fault threshold in your state, you have the right to pursue a liability claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance company for all your damages, including pain and suffering.

2. The At-Fault Driver’s Insurance Policy

In most states, the liability coverage under the at-fault driver’s insurance policy will be the primary source of compensation for your injury. Of course, saying that is one thing, and putting it into practice is another. In many, if not most accidents there will likely be a dispute as to who caused the accident.

While the police report may clear up the facts, sometimes these facts themselves become the sticking points in an ongoing claim or lawsuit. Whether there were two drivers involved in the crash, or you were a passenger in a multi-vehicle accident, the best practice is to make claims with all insurance carriers that could possibly be responsible for your compensation.

While this may be more work for you at the beginning, it can be a smart move in many ways. For example, if you make a claim with two separate insurance companies, each of those companies now has a vested financial interest in finding the truth of the accident. In this way, involving both carriers can help you resolve your claim more quickly.

Similarly, if you are injured in a single-car crash, you must not hesitate to file an injury claim with the driver’s policy, even if the driver is a close friend or family member.

You may be reluctant to make a claim against the policy of a friend or loved one. Keep in mind that making a claim against a friend’s insurance policy is not the same thing as suing them or blaming them for your injury. You are simply trying to keep yourself healthy and financially stable. Assuming that your friend or family has your best interest at heart, they should understand.

Insurance companies may deny claims by a family member of the insured by arguing that household members are excluded from coverage.

3. Uninsured or Underinsured Motorist Coverage

In the event that the responsible driver did not have the auto insurance coverage required by your state, you may have to fall back on your (or your driver’s) uninsured or underinsured motorist (UM/UIM) coverage.

This coverage was particularly designed for this kind of situation, though your insurance adjuster will likely want to thoroughly explore other options before paying out on a UM/UIM claim.

Passenger Car Accident Settlement Amounts

Now that we have an understanding of the issues involved in passenger injury accident claims, let’s discuss what some of these situations might actually look like.

Example: Passenger in Car Hit by a Drunk Driver

On a Wednesday night in California, Agnes and her husband Joshua are returning from their weekly Bible study. Joshua is driving responsibly within the speed limit. Driving from the other direction is Daniel. Daniel drank six beers and is driving under the influence. He nods off on the road and drifts into the oncoming lane of traffic, side-swiping Joshua’s vehicle.

Joshua escapes from the accident with some minor cuts and bruises. Agnes, however, was looking out her window at the time of impact and smashed her head against that window. She suffered a concussion and lost consciousness for three days. After that, she was unable to go back to work as a receptionist for two weeks.

Who’s responsible? Daniel. The claim will be made against his insurance policy. If Daniel doesn’t have enough insurance, Joshua and Agnes’s UM/UIM coverage will kick in.

What are the damages? Agnes’s medical treatment, including her three-day hospital stay, cost $46,000. She also lost two weeks of work, where she makes $15 per hour. Her lost wages claim, then, is $1,200. Her economic damages come to a total of $47,200.

Though she did not suffer permanent neurological damage, she did have significant head pain for two weeks. We’ll rate her pain and suffering as two times her economic damages, or $94,400.

Agnes’s total estimated damages, then, are $141,600.

What is a fair settlement? You always settle a claim for less than you can potentially get going to trial. (Both you and the insurance company are “buying peace” by settling.) Therefore, 60-80% of the claim represents a good settlement. That gives Agnes a settlement range of $84,960 to $113,280.

Example: Passengers Injured in Car Driven by Drunk Driver

Daniel was driving under the influence when he drifted into the oncoming lane and side-swiped another vehicle before leaving the road and hitting a tree.

When Daniel crashed his car, he had two passengers. One was his wife, Esther, and the other was his best friend, Jacob. Both Esther and Jacob knew that Daniel had had some beers before he got behind the wheel, but they only thought he had two, not six.

When Daniel crashed the car, Esther was in the passenger seat. Her airbag deployed, lacerating and breaking her nose. She later had scarring and would need cosmetic surgery. Jacob was in the back seat without a seatbelt. He flew through the windshield of the car, broke his neck, and was paralyzed.

Who’s responsible? All three people, in part. Daniel was driving drunk, so he is primarily responsible. Both Esther and Jacob knew that Daniel was drinking, yet chose to ride with him. Jacob also failed to wear his seat belt, which directly contributed to his bodily injury and paralysis.

Because California is a comparative negligence state, Daniel’s responsibility to his passengers is reduced by the amount of their negligence. In Esther’s case, she is 20% responsible for her own injury. Jacob is 45% responsible for his own injury.

Esther is excluded under Daniel’s policy, because she is his wife and she lives with him. She could potentially have a claim against Daniel personally, though that claim would probably not be good for their marriage. Even if she could recover, she could only get 80% of her damages from Daniel if a jury finds her to be 20% at fault for her injuries.

Jacob can make a claim against Daniel’s policy, but the insurance company will argue that he can only recover 55% of his damages.

What are the damages? Esther has $2,000 in medical bills and will need $8,000 for cosmetic surgery. She did not miss any work. Her pain and suffering is valued at 1.5 times her economic damages of $10,000, so her total damage claim would be $25,000. When you factor in her comparative negligence, Esther’s claim is only worth $20,000.

Jacob’s paralysis is permanent. His past and future medical costs will be $5,000,000. Since he is permanently disabled, he can no longer work as an auto mechanic, where he made $45,000 per year. His lifetime earnings would have been $1,350,000. His total economic damages, then, would be $6,350,000.

Jacob’s pain and suffering are considerable, so they will be three times his economic damages, or $19,050,000, for a total damages amount of $25,400,000. However, that amount must be reduced by 45%, the amount of Jacob’s comparative negligence. Therefore, a more accurate damages number would be $13,970,000.

What is a fair settlement? In Esther’s case, she would be lucky to get anything from an insurance adjuster. Even a nuisance value offer of $1,000 would be good. Assuming she had the ability and inclination to sue her husband personally, a good settlement value would be between $12,000 and $16,000.

Jacob’s damages are high enough that he should be able to get paid up to the full policy limits from Daniel’s policy, and that likely will be nowhere near $13,970,000. If Daniel only carried California’s minimum liability insurance requirements, Jacob would only get $15,000 for his injuries.

Putting the Pieces Back Together   

Getting adequate compensation can be difficult when you are an injured passenger in a car accident. The sheer number of possibilities, both in terms of who is responsible and who pays, can be intimidating.

Though the process can be stressful, it’s important to separate emotion from fact and focus on healing and getting back to your life.

If you or a loved one has suffered serious injuries as a passenger in a motor vehicle accident, it’s important that you have someone on your side who can look at things clearly and with an experienced eye.

Speak with an experienced car accident lawyer in your state for a free case evaluation.

Matthew Carter, Esq. has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He’s admitted to practice law in California and Nevada, where he was awarded the rating of AV – Preeminent. Matthew has successfully handled a variety of personal injury and wrongful death cases, as well as trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal... Read More >>