Freak car accidents: Who pays?

Linda Melone

Accidents happen, but sometimes they occur in ways we can't imagine. Bad roads, poor weather, a spat with a loved one or even an overly excited new car owner can lead to driving disasters and car insurance claims.

These five scenarios may spark debate between you and your car insurance company. Find out what the experts say about who pays in each circumstance.

1. The car in front of you stops short. You stop in time to avoid hitting him, but the vehicle behind you rams into your car. This makes you hit the car in front of you.

It seems unfair, but you and your insurance company will be responsible for damage to the car that you hit, says Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania.

Some people mistakenly think the motorist who triggered the accident should be responsible for all of it. But while you stopped in time, you didn't leave enough space between you and the car in front of you, Lynch says. "You're responsible for their damage," he says, "and the car behind you will be responsible for your damage."

Keep in mind that standard liability insurance won't cover you in this situation. The only coverage that applies here is collision coverage. Most lenders require you to have collision coverage for a financed car. But if you own your car outright, collision coverage is optional.

2. Your friend spills a drink in your car, which goes into the shifter and fries the electrical system.

If a friend spilled the drink and not you, there's a high probability that you'll be covered by your insurance, Lynch says. "If you damaged your own car, it's not a covered event because it's self-inflicted — it's like backing out of your garage and hitting your own car," he says.

Although it's not certain in every case, if someone else spilled the drink and caused the damage, his or her liability insurance could cover the damages, Lynch says. However, if you file a claim with your own car insurance company, you'll have to cough up a deductible, Lynch says.

3. A husband and wife get into a fight. The wife purposely slams the car door into a tree in a fit of rage.

"Auto policies do not cover intentional acts," says Michael Davis Sr., president of the Michael L. Davis Insurance Agency in Ohio.

So if you're the husband and wife in this case, you're going to have to pay out of your own pocket to fix the damage.

On the other hand, if a friend or a stranger caused the damage, it would be considered vandalism, says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of MoneyCrashers.com, a personal finance website. "Your comprehensive coverage auto insurance would cover it," Schrage says.

4. Your neighbor claims your teenage son hit his car. You have no way of disproving it, aside from your son's denial. Yet your neighbor threatens to contact the police if you don't file a claim with your insurer.

The family of the teen should submit the claim to their insurer for investigation by a certified claims adjuster, Davis says. The adjuster will seek evidence to figure out who's to blame. If the police are willing to investigate, they may be able to determine whether your teen was at fault, according to Davis.

If your teenage son was responsible, brace yourself for higher car insurance premiums.

5. You're so excited about showing off your new car to your friend that you accidentally smash into her garage door. The door and house are damaged, along with your friend's car.

The property damage part of your liability coverage would cover the damage to your friend's car and garage, without you having to pay a deductible, Davis says. Damage to your new car would fall under collision coverage, minus your deductible. Liability coverage is mandatory in every state except New Hampshire, while collision coverage is optional but may be required by an auto lender.

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