What is Motor Vehicle Accident Law?

Types of cases that can result from a car accident

By Super Lawyers staff | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on July 11, 2023

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Car accidents are so common they’re almost a fact of life. If you haven’t been involved in an accident yourself, you almost certainly know someone who has been.

After a car accident, you might be wondering what your legal recourse is. Or, if you have been sued or charged in connection to an accident, you might be worried about navigating the legal system.

The following information will give you a brief overview on car accident claims. It’s important to realize at the outset that car accident laws and penalties vary by state, and getting legal advice from a personal injury attorney in your area is essential.

Overview of Motor Vehicle Accident Law

The legal consequences of car accidents vary by state laws and depend on the severity of the accident and whether there were any aggravating factors that made the accident worse. You might find that your car accident results in both civil and criminal proceedings.

Long before any legal proceedings, law enforcement officers at the scene of the accident will gather information, including the contact information and driver’s license numbers of those involved in the car crash. Officers will also take pictures and interview witnesses, including the motorists, to create a police report of the accident. Though typically not admissible in court, police reports can be relevant when negotiating a settlement with the other party or insurance company.

Meanwhile, the individuals involved in the accident will exchange driver’s insurance information and file accident reports with their auto insurance providers. There are different types of insurance coverage that a driver may have, including collision and underinsured- or uninsured-motorist coverage. It’s good to be aware of the type of coverage you have in case you are involved in a motor accident.

Civil Cases

The most common civil proceedings that arise from a car accident are personal injury or property damage suits. If you are being sued for a car accident, your insurance company provider will likely be part of the lawsuit and will usually provide a lawyer to defend you against the other party’s claims.

If you would like to sue someone for your injuries or property damage, you may want to consider hiring your own car accident attorney for a car accident case, especially since the person you are suing will likely have one provided by their car insurance.

Personal Injury

Auto accidents are the most common cause for personal injury cases, and these cases are litigated under the legal theory of negligence. In a negligence case, the plaintiff or injured person needs to show four things:

  1. Duty. The driver owed you a duty of care to operate their vehicle safely.
  2. Breach of duty. The driver failed in this duty by operating their vehicle in an unreasonably unsafe way.
  3. Causation. The driver’s breach of duty is what caused your injuries.
  4. Damages. You suffered harm as a direct result of the other driver’s breach. Damages are what you are seeking compensation for in a personal injury lawsuit. There are economic damages, such as medical bills for bodily injuries or lost wages due to missing work, as well as non-economic damages for things such as emotional distress.

Different theories of negligence may apply in your case, depending on the state you live in and the circumstances of your accident. For example, states use either a comparative negligence or contributory negligence standard for dividing fault between multiple drivers who are responsible for an accident. In cases involving employee drivers (as in commercial truck accidents), a theory of vicarious liability may be involved, through which employers are liable for your injuries.

It may be helpful to talk with a doctor to determine whether your injuries were a result of the car accident. Learn more about personal injury cases.

Property Damage

Car accidents usually result in at least some property damage. It’s probably a given that you can recover the cost of repairing your car, but if other property was damaged in the accident, you can make a claim for those, too. This includes, potentially, your phone, your glasses and any car seats in your vehicle, which you should replace after any accident for the safety of your children.

Wrongful Death Lawsuits

If a negligent driver’s actions result in the death of another driver, surviving loved ones (such as a spouse or adult child) may bring a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the deceased person to recover compensation. Wrongful death lawsuits are separate from criminal cases involving the death of drivers.

Criminal Cases


Occasionally, after an accident, law enforcement will issue an at-fault driver citation for the automobile accident. Officers generally issue the citation when there is clear evidence as to how the traffic accident happened, and the citations are often for moving violations like speeding or following too closely. While these are criminal charges, they are usually on the lower end of the criminal spectrum. Nevertheless, you might find it helpful to speak with a car accident lawyer about your next steps.


The officer at the scene might perform field sobriety tests to determine whether any drivers were intoxicated. If you were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the accident, you will likely be charged with a DUI or DWI. The severity of this charge can range from a misdemeanor to a felony depending on state laws and whether anyone was injured due to the car crash. Learn more about how officers test for intoxication and how these cases proceed through the criminal justice system.

Vehicular Manslaughter/Homicide

The most tragic car accidents result in death. In these situations, a driver can be charged with vehicular homicide or manslaughter, a type of unintentional killing. A driver won’t necessarily be charged with vehicular homicide every time someone dies in a car accident, as it is only appropriate when the driver is driving in an illegal way.

Common examples of illegal driving that results in a vehicular manslaughter charge include negligent or reckless driving, driving while intoxicated, drowsy driving or distracted driving. States have also passed statutes limiting what you can do while operating a vehicle and violating those rules can also result in this kind of charge. Learn more about how these kinds of charges are handled in the courts.

Why Should I Talk to a Lawyer?

Civil defendants often have lawyers through their insurance policies, so if you are initiating a civil lawsuit after a car accident, you will want to consider speaking with a lawyer to even the playing field. If you are defending criminal charges after a car accident, your lawyer can protect your rights by representing you in trial or negotiating a plea agreement. In either case, a lawyer can assist you in interviewing witnesses and collecting necessary medical and financial reports.

A lawyer will further be able to anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. They can also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.

Frequently Asked Questions for a Motor Vehicle Accident Attorney

Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.

  1. How do I prove the other driver caused my injuries?
  2. What is the statute of limitations for bringing a car accident claim?
  3. Will compensation cover my medical expenses?
  4. Can a car accident lead to criminal charges?
  5. Can I sue the other driver even if they have been criminally charged?
  6. What do I do if the officer said I was at fault, but I don’t think I was?
  7. What do I do if I was involved in an accident and I don’t have insurance?

Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs

It is important to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory, and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.

To help you get started, you may want to consider looking for a lawyer who specializes in car accidents. If you are facing criminal charges after an accident, you might also want to consider looking for a criminal defense lawyer.

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