Car Accidents and Bankruptcy, Part II

As discussed in my previous post, there are three major questions that must be answered when considering whether to include an auto accident lawsuit in a bankruptcy for potential discharge.

  • Was the debtor under the influence of drugs and alcohol at the time of the accident?
  • Was there bodily injury to the victim, or just property damage?
  • Were the actions of the debtor willful or malicious (intentional)?

These three questions will determine if the lawsuit filed (most likely by the insurance company) will be discharged, or whether it will survive the bankruptcy.

The United States Bankruptcy Code addresses bankruptcy discharge under Title 11, Sections 523, 727, and 1328, and these are the sources for most of the information to follow.

Congress has embraced a policy that personal injury and death damages caused by a driver intoxicated or under the influence of drugs should not be eligible for a discharge in either a Chapter 7 or a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Section 523(a)(9) prevents the discharge of a debt related to, "death or personal injury caused by the debtor's operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft if such operation was unlawful because the debtor was intoxicated from using alcohol, a drug, or another substance."

This section applies to both Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcies. It is most important to note what this section does NOT apply to... property damage caused while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. If an individual causes only property damage while intoxicated, for instance by running into a parked car or destroying a fence, the purely property damage claim can be discharged in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

If, on the other hand, the damage claim relates to a bodily injury or death, the claim cannot be discharged, even if it was not willful or malicious. The claim and the debt will survive or "pass-through" the bankruptcy. It will be important to review the details of the lawsuit with your bankruptcy attorney to determine how section 523 will apply to your bankruptcy petition. It is entirely possible that filing a bankruptcy will remain worthwhile, if the debtor has large amounts of other debt. Filing a bankruptcy on the remaining debt may make it possible to pay damages related to an accident.

Congress has taken a hard stand against discharging debts related to driving under the influence when someone has been injured. As an experienced Pittsburgh bankruptcy attorney, I can help you determine if you are eligible for a discharge of an accident related debt.

In my next post, I will write about damages related to willful or malicious conduct of the debtor, and the (sometime) differing results in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Willful and malicious acts will prove to be the most difficult to discharge.