Second in a series. For Part 1, click here.
If you have ever been in a car accident, you have probably been deluged by letters and phone calls from attorneys who have seen your name pop up on a police report and want to represent you. “You are entitled to damages!” they yell, or “We can get you a large cash settlement!” Suddenly, you hear the faint chime of a cash register…
When shopping for an auto insurance policy, drivers need to realize what their options are. Pennsylvania is one of a very small number of states to offer its drivers a “limited tort” option on their auto insurance. However, having the option won’t help you if you don’t know what the choices mean.
What is “tort”?
The word “tort” is a legal term (from the same Latin root as the word “torture,” the root means “to twist”), which means “a civil wrong or wrongful act, whether intentional or accidental, from which injury occurs to another.” Torts include assault and battery, false imprisonment, libel and slander, and negligence, among others. Someone on the receiving end of a tort has a “cause for action”, i.e., a right to sue in court to recover his or her losses.
In recent years, the lawsuit industry has gotten completely out of control, with jury verdicts for pain and suffering costing insurance companies hundreds of millions of dollars every year. These costs are then passed on to other policyholders, causing everyone’s insurance premiums to rise. In response, legislators have tried to find ways to rein in the amount of money that can be awarded in lawsuits.
What is “full tort”?
Hypothetical scenario: You are waiting at a red light. Someone behind you is on his cell phone, and is a bit slow in pushing on the brake. He taps into your back bumper at approximately 8 miles per hour. Your car is not damaged, and you are not hurt. What do you do?
If you are like most people, you will get out of the car, look at your back bumper, decide that it’s not worth your time, and drive on. However, there will be the occasional person who decides to cash in on the situation. He will rush to his doctor, complain of symptoms ranging from whiplash to psychological trauma, and serve the driver of the other car with a lawsuit demanding $50,000 or more. That driver has full tort.
Okay, so what is “limited tort”?
The limited tort option on your auto policy precludes you from suing in most cases where you are not “severely injured” in exchange for a significant discount on your premium. Limited tort would have prevented the driver above from filing his lawsuit, thereby saving everyone a lot of money.
However, that is not to say that limited tort is without its drawbacks. The most oft-cited problem with limited tort is the case of moderate whiplash. Whiplash can cause severe pain, but the visible symptoms are usually not at the level of a “severe injury.”
In that case, you may be unable to win a lawsuit, because the majority of damage in a whiplash case is “pain and suffering”, and that is exactly what you are giving up by getting the limited tort discount.
Even with limited tort, you still have the option to sue for anything in certain cases. Those cases include:
- When you were “severely injured” (see above);
- When the other driver is from out of state;
- When the other driver is driving a commercial vehicle (a tractor trailer, a taxicab, etc.); or
- When the other driver is committing a crime (DUI, driving a getaway car, etc.).
So, what should you get?
If you ask a trial lawyer, you will be told to always get full tort—after all, you want to keep your options open, just in case, right? However, from an attorney’s point of view, that makes sense—they get paid more for bigger verdicts. From a policyholder’s point of view, the savings you get from selecting the limited tort option is usually significant enough that they are willing to take the risk of not having every litigious option available to them in case of an accident. As usual, make sure your agent knows you and your situation when you are going over your policy so you can make the right decision for yourself.