Are Car Accident Debts Dischargeable in Bankruptcy

March 10, 2014

Bankruptcy attorneys understand that disaster can strike at any moment. Individuals rarely make appointments at a bankruptcy law firm when life is going well. Bankruptcy relief is for when things have gone very wrong, sometimes unexpectedly, like in the case of a car accident. Fortunately, bankruptcy law can provide you with options to discharge debts arising from a car accident.

Property Damages
The Bankruptcy Code generally allows a debtor to discharge debts for property damage caused by an auto accident. The lone exception to this rule is Section 523(a)(6) which excepts debts from discharge “caused by willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity.”

The U.S. Supreme Court pointed out in Kawaauhau v. Geiger that a willful and malicious act is not the same as a negligent or even reckless act:

only acts done with the actual intent to cause injury fall within [Section 523(a)(6)’s] scope. The section’s word “willful” modifies the word “injury,” indicating that the nondischargeability takes a deliberate or intentional injury, not merely . . . a deliberate or intentional act that leads to injury. 

Kawaauhau v. Geiger, 523 U.S. 57, 61–62 (1998). Most auto accidents are the result of negligence and are outside the scope of Section 523(a)(6). Even in drunk driving cases, the defendant is usually found to have exhibited actions of “reckless disregard” and not “willful and malicious.” Consequently, Section 523(a)(6) is often a losing argument in drunk driving cases involving property damage.

The exception found in Section 523(a)(6) only applies in a Chapter 7 case. There is no property damage exception in a Chapter 13 case, so any property damage caused by an auto accident is discharged in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

Personal injuries
The Bankruptcy Code is less forgiving of personal injuries and contains more restrictions when discharging these debts. The most restrictive of these exceptions is found in Section 523(a)(9) which excepts from discharge any personal injuries caused by operating a vehicle while intoxicated. This exception applies to bankruptcy cases filed under Chapter 7 or Chapter 13.

A bankruptcy court may find that a state court judgment satisfies all of the necessary elements to meet the exception found in Section 523(a)(9). On the other hand, the bankruptcy court is not bound by an acquittal in a state court DUI case, since the standard of proof is different in state court criminal proceedings. A bankruptcy court may find that personal injuries are not dischargeable under Section 523(a)(9) even after the debtor was acquitted of criminal DUI (or never charged at all).

When the personal injury is not caused by intoxication, Section 523(a)(6) excepts from discharge personal injuries (and property damages, see above) willfully and maliciously caused by the debtor. This section does not apply to Chapter 13 cases, which has its own provision. Section 1328(a)(4) disallows discharge of a debt for “damages, awarded in a civil action against the debtor as a result of willful or malicious injury by the debtor that caused personal injury to an individual or the death of an individual.” Note that in Chapter 7 cases, Section 523(a)(6) excepts personal or property injuries, but only if the debtor acted willfully and maliciously. In Chapter 13 cases, a debt is excepted if it is (1) to a person; (2) an award was made in a civil case; and (3) the injury caused by the debtor was willful or malicious. For further information or a free consultation contact the experienced attorneys at Fears | Nachawati today. Call us at 1.866.705.7584 or send an email to fears@fnlawfirm.com.

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