Can a passenger sue a driver? The short answer is yes.
Decades ago, a series of rules known as “Host Driver Acts” used to prevent passengers from suing their drivers. The reasons for these rules no longer apply, although it is not uncommon for passengers to express reluctance to sue their drivers even these days. Usually this is because there is a relationship between driver and passenger. Often the relationship is a close tie of friendship or blood which can make the claim awkward. Today things are far less awkward because most people realize that claims are settled by insurance companies and not by drivers individually. (It can be fairly confusing, however, in court where, under Virginia law, suits must still be filed directly against the at-fault party. Also, no mention of insurance is allowed in trials, and the courts must keep up the legal pretense that the driver is the one paying any claim).
Even though it is awkward, a claimant with a legitimate case should not hesitate to bring a claim against the driver, even when the driver is a close relative. Waiving the claim only benefits the insurance company and causes a legitimate claimant to forfeit substantial compensation. Often the problem can be solved simply be approaching the responsible party and advising him the claim is going to be asserted against the insurance company. Assurances can be given that no effort will be made to collect against the individual personally. Under those circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how such a defendant would suffer any adverse legal problem.
One other issue is worth noting: when the passenger/claimant is also a resident of the insured household, the relationship can frequently be used to broaden the scope of insurance coverage. So-called “underinsured motorist coverage” acts like umbrella coverage for the household. Therefore, the claimant is making a claim both against responsible party and for excess coverage. This comes up frequently when the claimant (for example) is a college student. While the student is not permanently residing under the insured’s roof, she may be considered a “resident relative” for insurance purposes. We used this strategy recently to expand the benefits available to one of our college student clients and the results were quite favorable (even though the “defendant” was her dad).
In summary, we understand the reluctance to sue your driver especially if there is a close relationship there. But approaching the matter correctly with the assistance of counsel can result in a less awkward case—and one that pays off substantially in the long run.