By: Roger D. Horgan
Pennsylvania law requires the owner of every registered vehicle to maintain at least a minimum level of automobile liability insurance coverage. The law also imposes penalties on those who operate a vehicle without insurance: fines, license suspensions, and reduced rights in civil court. The question arises, however, as to whether or not a negligent driver who causes injury and damages to an operator of an uninsured vehicle is relieved of all responsibility for that negligence simply because the other driver lacked insurance. Does an uninsured driver lose all rights arising from an automobile accident caused by the negligence of another as a penalty for driving without insurance?
The short answer to that question is no, an uninsured driver does not lose all rights when injured by the negligence of another driver. That is not to say that there is no effect on the claim of the injured, uninsured driver. Rather, the price that is paid is a measured one. Aside from fines and potential suspension of a driver’s license, the fundamental penalty imposed under the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Financial Responsibility Act is that the uninsured driver is treated as if he had selected “limited tort” coverage. This means that he will have given up the right to pursue claims for non-economic damages, such as pain and suffering, unless he has sustained a serious injury, or some other exception to limited tort applies.
The uninsured driver also loses the right to participate in the first party benefits system established under the law, which is designed to make payment of accident related medical expenses and lost wages quick and easy. However, the uninsured driver is not precluded from recovering these losses from the negligent driver. This issue is addressed in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision in the case of Corbin v. Khosla where the Court unanimously ruled that the uninsured driver could indeed recover economic damages from the tortfeasor (wrongdoer). This was a surprising decision in the sense that the tortfeasor stands to pay more in medical expenses to an uninsured driver then he would to one who properly purchased automobile insurance. The Court concluded that the Legislature intended to provide incentives to purchase automobile insurance by imposing fines, suspensions, and the loss of the first party benefit system on those who fail to buy insurance, but that it did not intend to relieve negligent drivers of their responsibility for the injuries and damages they cause.
It goes without saying that one should not drive without automobile insurance in Pennsylvania, but it would be wrong to conclude that all is lost if the victim of automobile negligence happens to be one who lacks auto insurance. If you have been in an automobile accident, or have any questions regarding this particular issue, please contact us.