Limited Tort vs. Full Tort Insurance: What difference does it make?

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are the only two states in the country that offer auto insurance policies based on a “tort” election.  Consumers can choose to purchase either “full tort” or “limited tort” coverage.  75 Pa.C.S. sec 1705.  Limited tort coverage is sold at a lesser premium than full tort coverage and for that reason, can be very attractive to individuals seeking to save money however possible on their car insurance.  But do you know what the difference is between full tort and limited tort coverage?  The coverage you purchase affects your and your family’s rights in the event of an accident.  Deciding which coverage to purchase without knowing how those rights may be affected can lead to unwanted surprises in the future.

“Full tort” coverage is what you would consider to be traditional insurance coverage.  You have all of the rights under the law if you are injured in a car accident as a result of another driver’s negligence.  You can file a claim, or bring a lawsuit, for all damages caused as a result of the accident.  This includes damages for medical bills, lost wages, pain and suffering, scarring and disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, mental anguish, etc.  Your ability to bring a claim for damages is not limited by your car insurance policy.

“Limited tort” coverage is a lower cost insurance option that takes away some of your rights to sue for damages if you are injured in a car accident.  Limited tort insurance does not affect what claims can be brought against you if you are at fault for an accident.  But if you, or a family member, are the victim of a car accident, your rights to claim damages are restricted by your “limited tort” election.  If you are a “limited tort” automobile insurance consumer, you are only permitted to file a claim, or bring a lawsuit, for your economic damages.  This generally means you can make a claim for your medical bills (if certain conditions are met) and lost wages.  You cannot bring a claim for non-economic damages — pain and suffering, scarring, disfigurement, loss of enjoyment of life, etc.

When you make a limited tort election on your car insurance policy, your choice affects you and family members residing in your household (if your family members are not covered by another policy).  For example, you reside with your spouse and two children.  You have one car insurance policy, covering two vehicles.  You make a limited tort election.  Your tort election applies to you, your spouse, and your children.  Your tort election applies to you and your family even if you are not occupying your vehicle, provided no other exception applies.  Tort elections apply to all relatives of the policyholder in the household of the policyholder, whether they are related by blood or marriage.  Even if you do not have a car insurance policy in your own name, if you reside with a family member who has a car insurance policy, you may be bound by their election under the law.

You and your family members are bound by your limited tort election except in the following situations:

  • The person who caused the accident in which you were injured is convicted of driving under the influence, or accepts ARD relative to such charges;
  • The vehicle being driven by the person who caused an accident was registered in a state other than Pennsylvania;
  • The person who caused the accident acted with the intention to injure himself or another;
  • The person who caused the accident is uninsured;
  • You are occupying a vehicle other than a “private passenger motor vehicle” at the time of your injury (e.g., a motorcycle, a commercial vehicle, etc.); or,
  • You suffer a “serious injury.”

Whether you suffered a “serious injury” is defined by case law in Pennsylvania.  The term “serious” has a very specific legal definition separate from its common usage.  The question of whether you suffered a “serious” injury is generally a question for a jury to decide.  If the insurance carrier does not agree that you suffered a “serious” injury, you usually must file a lawsuit to submit that issue for the jury to decide.

Your financial situation may make it impossible for you to select full tort coverage, as the premiums are modestly higher for such coverage.  However, before you make the decision to give up your rights and your family’s rights by making a limited tort election, make sure you understand what you actually give up in exchange for the savings.