Car Accidents and Bankruptcy, Part III

The last situation to discuss regarding the dischargeability of debts related to auto accidents is the situation in which the debtor's conduct was considered to be "willful and malicious".

"Willful" denotes the idea that the act was done with motive, on purpose. It could involve a level of premeditation or planning by the actor. The act must be more than merely negligent to be willful. There must be a clear intention to cause harm.

"Malicious" is defined by Merriam-Webster as, "having or showing a desire to cause harm to another person; having or showing malice." Once again, someone can act willfully or intentionally, but if there was no intent to do harm, the standard of "willful and malicious" is not met.

It should be pointed out, this standard of willful and malicious conduct will rarely be applicable to auto accidents. Most auto accidents involve either driving under the influence or negligence. Auto accidents are rarely "willful and malicious", though the possibility exists. For instance, an individual could intend to injure a victim with a car by ramming their car or chasing and hitting them.

The willful and malicious standard will more commonly apply to situations where a judgment has been entered in a civil lawsuit for physical assault. But, as discussed above, it could apply to an auto accident in rare instances.

There is an important distinction in Chapter 7 bankruptcy between intoxication damages and willful and malicious damages. As discussed in an earlier post, property damage resulting from intoxication may be discharged in a Chapter 7; however, property damage resulting from a willful and malicious act is NOT dischargeable in Chapter 7. It will be important to discuss this distinction with your attorney. -See 11 USC Sec. 523(a)(6)

There are a couple slight distinctions to the willful and malicious standard in Chapter 13 bankruptcy. In Chapter 13, the act need be only willful OR malicious to be non-dischargeable. Therefore, the act only needs to be intentional or done with malice. It will be a very slight distinction in almost every case. However, there is a major distinction between Chapter 13 and Chapter 7 related to property damages. Property damages caused by willful OR malicious acts can be discharged in Chapter 13, whereas they cannot be discharged in Chapter 7.

In my next post, I will summarize the last three posts, as it becomes quite complicated what can be discharged in Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 when dealing with auto accidents.