What To Do If You’re In a Car Accident Without Insurance But Not At Fault In California

You may be eligible for compensation if you’re in an accident without insurance in California, but you’ll face penalties for driving uninsured.
Written by John Davis
If you're in a car accident without insurance in
, the consequences can be serious. If you're
not at fault
, you'll be able to file a claim with the other driver's insurance company, but you won't be able to collect non-economic damages—and you'll face harsh penalties for
driving without insurance
  • If you're in an accident and not at fault, you can file a claim with the other driver's insurance—but expect to face penalties for driving uninsured. 
  • After an accident, exchange information with the other driver and take photos to document your innocence. 
  • Driving without insurance is illegal in California and carries harsh consequences. 
  • Compare rates to find the best insurance coverage and avoid future violations.

Here's what to do if you're in a car accident in California and you don't have insurance: 

First: Don't leave the scene of the crash. While you might be tempted to get out of there to avoid revealing that you don't have valid insurance coverage, leaving the scene of an accident is always a serious offense in California, whether or not you have insurance and regardless of who’s at fault. If you leave, you could receive a: 
  • $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail if the accident involved property damage.
  • $10,000 fine and up to three years in jail if the accident involved injuries.
  • Felony hit-and-run charge and extended prison time if the accident involved a death.
So, if you're in an accident without insurance, stay calm and stay at the scene.
Next steps: Pull over when it's safe to do so and check yourself, your passengers, and anyone else involved in the accident for injuries. Call 911 if necessary and exchange information with the other driver, including your driver's license number. 
Collect evidence: Document the accident with photos and videos, and write down your full recollection as soon as possible—this will help to show later on that you weren't at fault. 
File any eligible claims: 
  • If you aren't at fault and the other driver has insurance, you can
    file a claim
    with their insurance company for any vehicle repairs or medical bills that come out of the crash—even if you don't have your own insurance policy. 
  • If the other driver is also uninsured, you'll be able to file a personal injury lawsuit for any economic damages such as repairs, medical expenses, and lost wages.
  • If you have no insurance, you can't file a suit for non-economic damages. That means you won't have any legal resources to compensate for your pain and suffering, diminished earning capacity, and the other long-term effects of a serious car accident. This is called a "No Pay, No Play" rule. 

Who decides fault in a car accident in California?

If the police show up at the scene of the accident, the officer's report will help insurance companies determine liability. 
However, no matter who receives a ticket or what the police claim may have contributed to the accident, the insurance company ultimately determines who’s at fault for the accident. 
If you’re not at fault in an accident while uninsured, provide evidence of the other driver's fault in your claim with their insurance company. 
Pro tip: Photographs can go a long way toward demonstrating that you were not at fault and not financially responsible for the other driver's expenses. 

Do you need to report a car accident in California?

Not necessarily. 
If the accident didn't result in any injuries or deaths and caused less than $750 of property damage, you don't have to report it to the police—although leaving the scene is still a criminal offense. 
That said: Any accident that causes at least $750 of property damage or results in injuries or death must be reported to police within 24 hours—and if any individual's property damages exceed $1,000, you'll also need to file a report with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) within 10 days. 

What if you're at fault?

If you are at fault in an accident while uninsured, the consequences can become serious—fast. 
Because California is a comparative negligence state, you'll be financially responsible for your portion of the other driver's vehicle repairs and medical bills, and that driver can file a personal injury lawsuit to demand the money. 
If you're found to be driving without insurance after a collision, you'll also face serious consequences and legal penalties, including:

What if you're hit by an uninsured driver in California?

What if the other driver doesn't have insurance, but you do?
If the at-fault driver in a car accident in California has no insurance, you'll need to pursue them directly for damages—and that could be a time-consuming and fruitless process. 
However: There are a few types of additional auto insurance that could cover your expenses. California is required to offer drivers
uninsured motorist coverage
and underinsured motorist coverage, which are commonly referred to as
. These coverages will pay for your medical expenses if you’re hit by an uninsured driver or a driver who isn't carrying enough
bodily injury liability
to cover your medical cost.
California must also offer uninsured motorist property damage coverage (UMPD), which pays up to $3,500 towards the repairs of your vehicle as long as the at-fault driver is identified as being uninsured. All of these coverages are optional and can be waived by signing a coverage selection form from your insurance provider.
Another option is
medical payments (MedPay)
coverage. With this coverage, your hospital bills are paid through your car insurance up to the policy limits. And if you have a policy that includes
collision coverage
, you'll be able to file a claim with your insurance company for vehicle repairs.
Keep in mind: According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), about 16.6% of California drivers were uninsured in 2019—meaning that you have close to a one in five chance of being in an accident with someone who doesn't carry liability insurance. With those odds, it's worth arming yourself with UIM and collision insurance. 

Penalties for driving without insurance in California

While you may be able to claim damages after a car accident without insurance coverage if you weren't at fault, the penalties for
driving without insuranc
e in California are steep. 
As laid out in
California Vehicle Code Section 16029
, the fine for driving without insurance in California is $100 to $200 for a first offense, with additional penalty assessments of $26 for every $10 of the original fine. 
In other words, a single instance of uninsured driving could cost between $360 and $720! 
For a second offense, penalty assessments follow the same rate, but the base fine is bumped up to $200 to $500, resulting in a total cost of $520 to $1,300.
But if you're found to be driving without insurance after a collision, the consequences become much more severe. If it's your first offense, you'll face: 
  • Fines and penalties up to $720
  • A mandatory one-year license suspension 
  • An SR-22 filing requirement for three years
SR-22 certificate
is a form of proof of financial responsibility required after major driving offenses. If you maintain your SR-22 filing and carry the required insurance, you'll be able to get your license back after one year. 
Keep in mind: An SR-22 will result in extremely high insurance premiums, adding to the cost of the initial fines. In addition, police can legally impound your car if you're in an accident without insurance—even if you're not at fault—requiring steep fees to get it back. 
If your second offense of driving without
proof of insurance
involves an accident, the same penalties apply, but your license can be suspended for up to four years. 
These penalties are unavoidable; you can't buy insurance after the fact and have it apply retroactively, and you can't appeal the charges. 
The only exception is if you had insurance coverage at the time of the collision but didn't have
proof of insurance
with you. If you appear in court with proof that you were insured at the time of the accident, the court may let you off with a $20 administrative fee.
MORE: The penalties for using fake proof of insurance

Minimum required car insurance in California

So how much insurance do you legally need to carry in California to avoid these negative consequences? 
Under state law, all drivers must purchase an auto insurance policy that includes at least:
California's insurance laws
only require minimum liability coverage, meaning even people who have the required insurance will only have enough coverage for minor accidents. Most experts recommend going beyond those minimum limits and purchasing higher limits of $100,000 per person, $300,000 per accident for bodily injury liability, and $100,000 for property damage liability. These limits will protect you financially in most situations and are surprisingly affordable. 
Pro tip: While California doesn't require you to have
collision coverage
comprehensive coverage
, you should consider purchasing it for optimal protection. Even if you have an old vehicle, comprehensive coverage can provide protection from losses like glass damage, fires, windstorms, and earthquakes, which are all prevalent in California.

Driving without insurance can increase premiums

One more reason to carry at least minimum liability insurance: if you're caught driving without it, you'll have to pay more to insure your vehicle afterward. Any violations and car accidents on your driving record have the potential to drive up your rate—and keep it high as long as the points stay on your record. 

How to find cheap insurance in California

If you've held off on meeting California's car insurance requirements because you're not sure you can afford coverage, we get it. Insurance can be expensive—but the potential consequences of driving without it are even more costly.
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