The major legal development of the century relating to liability insurance has been the elimination of liability in the two areas of greatest exposure: in the workplace and on the highway. In the next unit on agency law, we discuss the no-fault system of workers’ compensation, under which a worker receives automatic benefits for workplace injuries and gives up the right to sue the employer under common-law theories of liability. Here we will look briefly at the other major type of no-fault system: recovery for damages stemming from motor vehicle accidents.
“No-fault” means that recovery for damages in an accident no longer depends on who was at fault in causing it. A motorist will file a claim to recover his actual damages (medical expenses, income loss) directly from his own insurer. The no-fault system dispenses with the costly and uncertain tort system of having to prove negligence in court. Many states have adopted one form or another of no-fault automobile insurance, but even in these states the car owner must still carry other insurance. Some no-fault systems have a dollar “threshold” above which a victim may sue for medical expenses or other losses. Other states use a “verbal threshold,” which permits suits for “serious” injury, defined variously as “disfigurement,” “fracture,” or “permanent disability.” These thresholds have prevented no-fault from working as efficiently as theory predicts. Inflation has reduced the power of dollar thresholds (in some states as low as $200) to deter lawsuits, and the verbal thresholds have standards that can only be defined in court, so much litigation continues.
No state has adopted a “pure” no-fault system. A pure no-fault system trades away entirely the right to sue in return for the prompt payment of “first-party” insurance benefits—that is, payment by the victim’s own insurance company instead of traditional “third-party” coverage, in which the victim collects from the defendant’s insurance company.
Among the criticisms of no-fault insurance is the argument that it fails to strengthen the central purpose of the tort system: to deter unsafe conduct that causes accidents. No-fault lessens, it is said, the incentive to avoid accidents. In any event, no-fault automobile insurance has been a major development in the insurance field since 1970 and seems destined to be a permanent fixture of insurance law.