There’s a reason most states require licensed drivers to carry auto liability insurance:
Liability coverage helps pay for the damages to other people involved in a car accident if it’s determined you were responsible.
State law may leave it up to the individual to decide if they want to carry the kind of insurance that will help pay to repair their own wrecked car or injured body. But in most cases, drivers won’t have an option when it comes to liability coverage.
Since your automobile could cause physical or material harm to others, you’ll generally be expected to carry enough insurance to cover those potential costs or, in some states, provide proof of financial responsibility.
What Is Liability Car Insurance?
If you’re found at fault—or “liable”—for an accident, liability insurance helps pay the property, medical, and other expenses of the other person (or people) involved.
There are several other types of insurance coverage available to drivers, so it’s easy to get them confused. Collision coverage, for example, pays to repair damage to your own car after an accident. And comprehensive coverage helps pay for damage to your car that’s caused by other factors, such as hail, a fire, or theft.
Auto liability insurance is all about the other guy. It’s not there to cover your costs or the costs of anyone who was riding in your car when the accident occurred.
What Costs Does Liability Insurance Cover?
Auto liability insurance has two subsets of coverage:
This portion of liability coverage protects the at-fault driver by paying for the other person’s emergency and continuing medical expenses related to the accident. It also might cover loss of income or funeral costs, or legal fees if there’s a lawsuit.
Property damage liability coverage helps pay for repairs to the other person’s car or other property (their home, a business, a fence, a bicycle, etc.) when the policyholder causes an accident.
Are There Limits on What an Insurer Will Pay?
Yes. The amount an insurer will pay for a claim depends on the coverage limits a policyholder chooses. The amount of coverage you’re required to carry varies from state to state. And you might choose to purchase a higher level of coverage than your state mandates.
Coverage caps are usually broken down into three categories:
Bodily Injury Liability Limit Per Person
This is the maximum amount an insurer will pay out for each individual who is injured in a car accident (other than the at-fault driver who is the policyholder).
Bodily Injury Liability Limit Per Accident
This is the maximum amount an insurer will pay overall for medical expenses if multiple people are hurt in an accident. (Again, it does not include medical costs for the at-fault policyholder.)
Property Damage Liability Limit
This is the maximum amount an insurer will pay to repair any damage a policyholder caused to another person’s property. Any amount over that limit will likely be the responsibility of the policyholder.
How Much Liability Insurance Should A Driver Have?
You cannot buy less than the minimum amount of liability insurance your state requires by law. But some states require significantly less coverage than others.
For example, the minimum liability insurance requirements in California are $15,000 for injury/death to one person, $30,000 for injury/death to more than one person, and $5,000 for damage to property.
But the minimum requirements in Maine are more than twice those amounts: $50,000 per person for bodily injury, $100,000 per accident for bodily injury, and $25,000 for property damage. (A combined single limit of $125,000 will also satisfy the minimum limit requirement in Maine.)
General recommendations suggest consumers purchase at least $100,000 of bodily injury liability per person and $300,000 per accident.
Keep in mind that when you’re shopping, you may not be able to choose standalone limits for each category of liability coverage. Most insurers set their coverage limits as part of a package, and you may have to make your purchase from those pre-established plans.
For example, a 25/50/10 policy would set the bodily injury limit per person at $25,000, the bodily injury limit per accident at $50,000, and the property damage limit at $10,000. Any costs that exceed those set amounts would be the responsibility of the policyholder.
Some people also consider purchasing an “umbrella” policy that would cover any excess costs if liability limits are exhausted. This type of policy can help protect you from large liability claims or judgments if you’re sued. And your umbrella policy may cover your car, home, and other properties, as well as other members of your household.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average cost of a claim after a private passenger car accident in 2019 was $18,417 for bodily injury and $4,525 in property damage. But a claim could go much higher, if there are multiple victims, for example, or if there are serious injuries or someone is killed.
What’s the Difference Between Full Coverage and Liability Only?
An auto insurance policy that includes liability, collision, and comprehensive coverage is sometimes called “full coverage,” because it covers both your costs and the costs of others involved in an accident.
Most states require liability coverage. But if your car is paid off, collision (which helps to repair or replace a car that’s damaged in an accident) and comprehensive (which pays if the car is stolen or damaged by fire, vandalism or some other non-collision scenario) may not be required in your state.
And if your car isn’t worth much, you might decide to forgo one or both when purchasing insurance. If your car is financed, however, the lender could require full coverage even if the state doesn’t.
Some states also may require other types of coverage:
• Uninsured motorist and underinsured motorist coverage can help cover your medical expenses if you’re in an accident with a driver who has little or no insurance.
• Uninsured motorist property damage coverage can help repair damage to your car if you are hit by an uninsured motorist.
• Personal Injury Protection (PIP) and/or Medical Payments (MedPay) can offer protection if you or your passengers are hurt or killed in an accident.
Do You Need Liability Coverage If You Live in a No-Fault State?
A dozen states have instituted “no-fault” laws for drivers, and the coverage rules and limits may vary from state to state, so you should be clear on the specifics of what your state requires.
Generally, when you live in a no-fault state and you’re in a car accident, everyone involved files a bodily injury claim with their own insurance company, regardless of who was at fault. Still, every no-fault state requires some level of liability coverage.
Drivers in no-fault states also typically must have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance included in their car insurance policy to cover their own potential medical expenses. PIP plans cover medical expenses for the car’s driver and passengers, which can include hospital bills, medication, rehabilitation, and other injury-related costs.
PIP insurance doesn’t replace bodily liability coverage in every state, and it doesn’t cover property damages. Your insurance company pays for repairs to your car if you have collision coverage. Or you may have to make a property damage claim against the at-fault driver’s insurance.
What If You Have an Accident in Another State?
Ready for a road trip? If you have an accident, your liability insurance may increase to match the minimum limits in whatever state you’re in, and in Canada. But you may want to check with your insurance company if you like to travel—especially if you have a bare-bones policy.
What’s Covered If Someone Else Is Driving Your Car?
The short answer is that the auto insurance covering the vehicle, not the person driving, is usually considered the primary insurance. So if you let someone else drive your car and that person causes an accident, your insurance company probably would be responsible for paying the claim.
Your liability coverage wouldn’t pay the medical bills of the person driving your car or the repairs to your car. (Although those costs may be covered by other parts of your policy). But it likely would be your liability insurance that pays for the driver of the other car’s medical bills and property damage.
Again, state laws may affect who is responsible in this situation, so it can help to know the rules before letting someone else drive your car.
How Much Does Liability Coverage Cost?
The price you’ll pay for liability coverage could be based on several factors, including how much you buy and where you live. You can do a little online shopping to search the best rates for your area.
But a better question might be “How much will it cost to bump up my liability insurance beyond the state-mandated minimums?” Getting twice as much coverage won’t necessarily cost twice as much. If the price fits your budget, you may want to consider carrying more coverage than the law requires.
Upping coverage might increase your comfort level, considering the expenses that might be involved in a major accident, even if you have insurance.
The extra coverage may cost more, but if you’re a safe driver you may qualify for better rates.
If you’re held responsible for a car accident, liability insurance will help pay the expenses of the others involved. Most states mandate this coverage, including “no-fault” states. But the amount of coverage you must carry may vary from state to state, so when you’re shopping for automobile insurance, it can be useful to know your state’s rules.
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