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PA Auto Insurance:
Limited vs. Full Tort Option

Woman with Neck Pain

Required Coverage: Limited Tort
Our Recommendation: Full Tort
Important Note: Under Pennsylvania law, you must select a Tort option.


The tort option is perhaps the most confusing and misunderstood facet of Auto Insurance in Pennsylvania.  This is in large part because the insurance companies have fought long and hard to limit the circumstances requiring payment under the Limited Tort option.  Whenever possible, you want to choose the Full Tort option.  It is important to note that your family members may be bound by your selection even if they are in another person's vehicle  at the time of an accident.  As explained below, anything less than Full Tort leaves you and your family vulnerable if you are victims in a car accident, even when you are passengers in a vehicle belonging to and insured by someone else


What Does “Tort” Mean?

“Tort” is a legal term meaning a private or civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, for which the law provides a remedy for damages.  For example, if someone breaches their duty to drive carefully and runs a red light, hitting your car and injuring you, the driver committed a tort and you may seek compensation as a matter of law.


What is Tort Selection for the Purposes of Auto Insurance?

In 1990, in an arguably unsuccessful attempt to control the rising costs of car insurance, Pennsylvania followed other states by mandating that all individuals elect to carry either “Full Tort” or “Limited Tort” policies.  Selecting Limited Tort lowers insurance premiums by approximately 12-20% in exchange for giving up significant rights, such as the ability to recover for pain and suffering (sometimes known as “non-economic damages”) caused by your injuries.


What is the Full Tort Option?

The Full Tort option is the only way to fully preserve the rights of you and your family.  You may bring a claim, and, if necessary, file suit, to recover any and all damages resulting from an accident, including compensation for often significant pain and suffering.


What is the Limited Tort Option and Why Do People
Choose It?

By choosing the Limited Tort option, you are giving up the right to compensation for pain and suffering resulting from injuries sustained in an auto accident.  People who choose this option usually often:

  1. Assume they will not get into an accident, despite the fact that in 2010, in Pennsylvania alone, there were 121,312 traffic collisions;
  2. Underestimate the reality of pain and suffering, which may last for months, or even years, and impede the functions of daily living; or,
  3. Believe that the short term savings in premiums justifies the risk of sacrificing thousands of dollars they or their loved ones may need in the aftermath of an accident.

In extremely limited circumstances, outlined below, you may still collect for pain and suffering under the Limited Tort option.  Since one of those exceptions is in case of “serious injury”, many people all lulled into a false sense of security thinking that they would be covered if the accident were at all significant.  This is patently false.  Due to the vigorous efforts of the insurance companies, the law now defines “serious injury” very narrowly, excluding much of what any lay person would undeniably consider serious.


While some people think it is difficult to afford the full tort option, the savings are generally minimal at best.  It is always worthwhile to explore your options with your insurance company representative.  There may be other areas in which you may economize, such as accepting a higher deductible on collision coverage or reducing less important types of coverage such as a towing reimbursement.


What are the Exceptions to the Limited Tort Restrictions?

While there are several exceptions to Limited Tort restrictions, they are much more narrowly defined by the courts than most people would expect.  Even if you selected the limited tort option, you may recover damages as if you had the full tort option if:

  1. Your injuries are deemed serious by an insurance adjuster, an arbitrator, a judge or a jury. This means that the injury rises to the level of a “significant impairment of bodily function”, permanent significant disfigurement or death. Please be aware that injuries that most people would consider quite serious, including those that cause you to suffer through months of pain which limits your daily functions, may not fall within the legal definition of “serious”. This is discussed further below.
  2. The person at fault in the accident is convicted of, or admits to, driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance (DUI) at the time of the accident. This exception also applies when the perpetrator accepts Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, an option which may allow the DUI charges to be dismissed after a court-assigned program is completed.
  3. The party responsible for the accident was driving a vehicle registered in another state.
  4. You were driving or a passenger within a commercial vehicle such as a rented vehicle, bus or taxicab at the time of the accident.
  5. The responsible party inflicted the injuries intentionally.
  6. The at-fault driver is the owner of a currently registered vehicle which is not insured.
  7. There is a product liability claim flowing from a defective product in the vehicle.
  8. You, or a family member living with you, is hit by a vehicle while a pedestrian. Thus, if you have limited tort, but your child is struck by a vehicle while lawfully crossing the street, your child can still recover for pain and suffering damages.
What is Considered a “Serious Injury”?

For the purposes of an exception to the Limited Tort option, a “serious injury” must cause:

  1. “Significant impairment of bodily function”;
  2. Serious permanent disfigurement; or,
  3. Death.

Over the years, attorneys for insurance companies have been very successful is getting the courts to narrow the scope of serious injuries.  There are several egregious examples of cases in which the injured party was bound by the Limited Tort restrictions and thereby unable to receive compensation for pain and suffering because their injuries were not deemed “serious”.


One such case involves an accident victim who suffered a torn rotator cuff. After surgery, rehabilitation and 3 months of missed work, the victim was fully recovered. Our courts ruled that he did not suffer a “permanent loss of a bodily function” and barred him from recovering pain and suffering damages because he selected the limited tort option.


How Does My Tort Selection Affect My Family?

You may not realize that your family members may be bound by your choice of limited tort, even when they are involved in an accident in a third party's vehicle.  That is because insurance covers more than the named insured (the person who is listed by name on the insurance policy).  Also insured under your policy is any individual residing in your house  who is:

  1. Your spouse or other relative; or,
  2. A minor in your custody or in the custody of your relative. This means that if you have limited tort, and your minor child is not insured under a separate, full tort policy, the child is bound by your limited tort policy. If the child is a passenger in another person's vehicle and there is an accident, it does not matter whether that vehicle is covered by a full tort policy. Your child is still stuck with limited tort and cannot collect damages for pain and suffering.
How Do I Initially Elect or Change a Tort Option?

By law, your insurance company must give you written notice of the availability of both limited tort and full tort options.  If you do not make your election within twenty (20) days, they must send you a second notice.  If, at that point, you do not respond within ten (10) days before the renewal date for the insurance policy, then they must presume that you have chosen the full tort option.


Tort selection must be made in writing by an adult insured who is named on the insurance policy.  If more than one person is named, then any named insured may make the selection for all the parties.


You may change your tort selection at any time.  If you currently have limited tort, it is best not to wait until it is time to renew your policy to switch to full tort.  Accidents, by nature, are unpredictable.  In 2010 in Pennsylvania alone, there were 87,949 injuries due to motor vehicle accidents.   


To switch to Full Tort coverage simply write your insurance agent or company and request the change to full tort.  Include the following information:


  1. Your name and address;
  2. Your policy number;
  3. The make and model of your vehicle;
  4. A statement that you wish to change your policy to include Full Tort Coverage, effective immediately;
  5. A request to be sent a bill for the difference in your insurance premium; and,
  6. A request that you be immediately sent a new Declaration Page that reflects the change in your policy to full tort coverage.
What Do I Do if I Have Already Been in an Accident and Have Limited Tort Coverage?

While you would be in a much stronger position if you had Full Tort coverage, you should still consult with an experienced attorney such as Gary Stewart Seflin without delay.  He can assist you with the following:


  1. He will verify that your limited tort selection is valid. Sometimes, the insurance agent selects the limited tort option without discussing it with you. If there is no signed acceptance of such an election by the named insured, it is not valid and full tort rights should apply. Verbal consent is insufficient.
  2. While you have sacrificed your full tort rights to non-economic damages, Gary Stewart Seflin can help you determine whether there are economic damages which you can recover. Examples of these include wage loss, unpaid medical bills and other out-of-pocket expenses, such as lost profits from a business, or money you had to pay someone to perform some task that you would have done yourself but for your injuries (such as snow removal, cleaning debris, childcare, etc.).
  3. Your case may fall into one of the exceptions to the limited tort restrictions, such as having sustained a serious injury as defined by law. Often, it takes an experienced attorney to determine whether these exceptions apply and to handle arbitration, or, if necessary, litigation with the insurance companies to force them to honor your claims.

If you have further questions about this or any other aspect of Pennsylvania Automobile Insurance, please do not hesitate to contact Gary Stewart Seflin by calling 610-892-9700 or by filling out our contact form.



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