In Pennsylvania, every owner of a registered motor vehicle must obtain automobile insurance on their vehicle pursuant to 75 Pa. C.S. § 1701 et. seq. In 1990 the law was changed to enable vehicle owners to have a choice between the standard automobile insurance policy and a cheaper, less expensive automobile insurance policy. These two types of policies are known as a "full tort" policy and a "limited tort" policy.
A "full tort" policy is a traditional policy wherein the insureds on the policy have an unrestricted right to bring a claim against a negligent driver, regardless of the type of injuries sustained. A "limited tort" policy is where the vehicle owner obtains a discount from the insurance carrier and in return for that discount the vehicle owner gives up his or her right to bring a personal injury claim for any injuries that are not considered "serious injuries", regardless of how negligent the other driver may have been.
The problem is that the vehicle owner's tort selection is binding on all of the "insureds" under the policy who do not own their own vehicle and are consequently not a named insured on any other policy. Pennsylvania auto law defines an "insured" as anyone residing with the vehicle owner (named insured) who is a spouse or relative of the vehicle owner. Thus, any child, grandchild, sibling, parent, grandparent or spouse (even if married after the auto insurance policy went into effect) may be bound by the household vehicle owner's limited tort selection, even though those "insureds" received no money (discount) from the automobile insurance company in exchange for the loss of their constitutional right to bring a claim against a negligent driver for injuries that are not "serious injuries."
Fortunately there are several exceptions to the rule that the limited tort policy prevents you from bringing a personal injury claim. If the facts involved in your accident or injuries meet one of the exceptions, then you may be granted full tort rights under the law. One of the statutory exceptions to the limited tort policy is if the negligent driver that caused the motor vehicle accident is charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, otherwise known as DUI in Pennsylvania and DWI in some other states, and the negligent driver is subsequently convicted or accepts Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition (ARD) for the charge of DUI. Thus, if the negligent driver is charged with driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance by the police, then you may be granted full tort rights and allowed to pursue a personal injury claim against the negligent driver, regardless of how serious your injuries are. See 75 Pa. C.S. § 1705(d)(1)(i).
How do you know if the negligent driver is charged with DUI? If you observe the negligent driver displaying signs of intoxication, such as being unsteady on his or her feet, stumbling, slurring speech, red or glassy eyes or smells of alcohol, call the police and have them question or test the negligent driver for DUI. You may also observe the police on their own testing the other negligent driver by having him or her perform certain physical tests or blow into a Breathalyzer or take the driver in their vehicle to transport him or her to the hospital for blood testing or you may observe the police arrest the other driver at the scene. Often times a person injured does not know whether the negligent driver is charged with DUI. If you don't know whether the negligent driver was charged with DUI, then you should obtain a copy of the police report. Most police reports will indicate whether the negligent driver was suspected of, tested for or charged with DUI.
Of course the best way to avoid this issue and to make sure that you always have full tort rights arising out of any and all motor vehicle accidents is to make sure that you or the vehicle owner in your household that is a relative of yours obtains a "full tort" automobile insurance policy. When you realize that the limited tort policy the vehicle owner purchases is binding on every household relative that does not have their own automobile insurance policy, you will realize that the amount of the discount divided by the number of household relatives who lose their rights is not worth the amount of the discount per person. Also, the limited tort policy has no affect on whether another person can bring a negligence claim against you. Your limited tort policy will pay another person injured by your driver's negligence, but may very well prevent you and your household relatives from bringing an injury claim against a negligent driver that injured you and/or your household relatives.
If you are injured in Pennsylvania by a motor vehicle, you should always consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to determine whether you have the right to pursue a claim against the negligent driver's insurance carrier for financial compensation for personal injuries, excess medical expenses and lost wages.