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The number of traffic fatalities in Missouri reached 1,055 in 2022, marking the second year the death rate increased, according to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety. The last time that the loss of life exceeded 1,000 was in 2006.

A recurrent factor across these traffic fatalities was a lack of seatbelts. In 2021, 65.1% of vehicle occupant deaths were due to individuals not wearing a seatbelt. Antagonistic conduct behind the wheel is also a major problem, and in the same year, around 54% of fatal vehicle incidents involved aggressive drivers.

To prevent more fatal crashes, the Missouri Department of Transportation has been undertaking a strategic highway safety plan called Show-Me Zero. This program emphasizes the importance of wearing a seatbelt, slowing down, being sober, and putting the phone down while driving, all in a bid to eliminate preventable deaths on the roads.

Because of the economic and human costs of motor vehicle accidents, it is important for motorists to know the rules for road safety and the legal options for people injured by careless drivers. Understanding the information that establishes legal duties of care that one may sue over is also essential. These include speed limits, insurance requirements, and the rules for filing personal injury claims.

Speed Limits

According to the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, 40% of crashes involve drivers exceeding the speed limit. It is important to drive at a safe speed so that there is enough time to respond to anything that might happen on the road. The basic speed limit on Missouri highways is 70 mph, although this rule has a couple of caveats. 

For interstate highways, expressways, and freeways in urbanized areas, the limit is only 40 mph. Furthermore, drivers should still pay attention to city and town laws, as local governments can set their own limits that are different from state-wide rules. Speed limit regulations also do not apply to emergency vehicles, including ambulances and state highway patrol cars with their signals up.

 Auto Accident Reporting

 Missouri law requires drivers to report an auto accident to the police if:

  • It resulted in injury or death

  • The property damage exceeds $500

  • The owner of a parked vehicle damaged in the accident cannot be located

It is advisable for plaintiffs to have a copy of the official police reports of the accident because these will form part of the evidence needed in any potential litigation. A favorable court judgment can be used to establish a duty to pay should the insurer deny a claim and need to be brought to the Missouri Department of Insurance.

The department will not address issues regarding which party was at fault but only whether a claim should have been denied under the insurance contract and applicable laws.

Anyone who fails to comply with the state law on reporting motor vehicle crashes can be fined, get their license suspended or be charged with a misdemeanor. The state can file a hit-and-run lawsuit against drivers who do not stop after an accident.

Hit-and-Runs and the Duty to Stay

It is illegal for drivers who cause car accidents in Missouri to abandon their victims after causing personal injury, property damage, or death. A failure to stay gives victims a cause to sue the defendant criminally on top of civilly. Motorists involved in crashes must stay and wait for the authorities to arrive. These parties must give the responding law officer the following data and documents:

  • Name and residence information

  • Registration or license number of the vehicle

  • Operator’s or driver’s license

If the perpetrator leaves the scene instead of staying to assume responsibility, there is liability for a class A misdemeanor. This becomes a class E felony if someone was hurt, if the driver has been caught for hit-and-run in the past, or if the damage to the property was worth more than $1,000.

Protections for Good Samaritans and Medical Responders

A car accident victim generally cannot bring suit against a medical responder who may have caused injury inadvertently. 

The law wishes to protect medical professionals and members of the public who might hesitate to respond to car accident scenes for fear of causing unintended harm during a rescue. For this reason, Missouri has adopted a Good Samaritan provision in its law. 

Doctors, registered nurses, surgeons, and licensed practical nurses who give emergency care and medication in good faith are not responsible for any unintentional injuries unless they acted with a complete disregard of due care or with the intent to hurt the victim. 

The same rules apply if these professionals treat a minor without securing the consent of the latter’s parents or legal guardians. 

People who are trained in first aid under a standard, recognized training program and who offer their assistance for free are also covered by the Good Samaritan law.

Auto Insurance Requirements

In Missouri, motor vehicle liability insurance is a legal requirement for all car owners. Under state law, a liability policy must cover at least $25,000 per person for bodily injury and $50,000 per accident if more than one person is hurt. For damage to property, the baseline coverage required is $25,000 per accident. This policy answers for the defendant’s automobile tort liabilities.

On top of liability insurance, drivers can get uninsured motorist (UM) coverage for additional protection. The UM coverage is for the benefit of the plaintiff and will pay for the damage if another driver without insurance causes an accident. Under state law, the UM coverage is $50,000 for bodily injury per accident and $25,000 for bodily injury per person.

In Missouri, a driver caught without the right insurance may be issued a traffic ticket. Since driving without insurance is illegal, a conviction for this violation can lead to the suspension of one’s driver’s license and license plates.

Fault Rule in Missouri Car Accident Matters

Missouri is an at-fault state for car accidents. A person who suffered injuries or property damage in a crash can claim compensation from the driver who caused the accident. Three options are available for recovering damages: 

  • File a claim with one’s own insurance company.

  • File a claim against the at-fault party’s insurer.

  • Sue the responsible motorist in court for the difference between the insurance payout and the complete value of the damages.

Under Missouri’s at-fault system, the victim can receive compensation for intangibles like emotional pain and suffering in addition to economic damages. However, it necessitates resorting to formal processes to determine which party acted negligently. In contrast, no-fault systems only cover economic damages like medical and funeral expenses, lost wages, and money spent on replacement services, but they allow a victim to obtain payments without having to file a tort claim.

In cases where both the victim and the defendant were careless, the settlement of auto accident claims in Missouri is subject to the pure comparative negligence rule. This means that even if the injured were partly to blame for the accident, they can still get compensation, but the amount is lessened by the amount they were at fault. 

For instance, a driver who is 20% at fault for an accident that settled for $100,000 can only get $80,000 because of the comparative negligence rule. It is not necessary for a plaintiff to come to court with cleaner hands or a lesser share in the fault — one can be as much as 95% to blame and still receive 5% of the damages sought.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling in Gustafson v. Benda, 661 S.W.2d, Missouri used the "last clear chance" paradigm, which made whoever had the last chance to avert a crash wholly responsible for a car crash. This prevented whoever had the last practical opportunity to avert an accident from recovering even partial compensation. This principle has since been abandoned.

Special Parties Liable for Car Accidents in Missouri

While the state of Missouri generally enjoys sovereign immunity from suit, it has specifically waived this in car accident matters. This allows car accident plaintiffs to sue the government whenever a public employee negligently operates a motor vehicle in the line of duty and causes harm to the claimant. 

Public entities in charge of public works are also accountable for failing to keep properties like highways and roads safe. However, since laws are generally applied moving forward and not retroactively, recovery may be barred in the case of roads designed and constructed before September 12, 1977. The defendant, however, must show that the roads built before this date met the minimum standards applicable during that time; otherwise, there is still negligence to bring to court.

Plaintiffs in car accident cases in Missouri may have a cause of action under product liability law for crashes due to faulty brakes or vehicle components. This law also applies in incidents where only one vehicle is involved. Product liability is strict under state law. It does not matter if the manufacturer, assembler, seller, or distributor meant to hurt someone or not, as long as the claimant can show: 

  • There was design, marketing, or manufacturing defect 

  • The product is inherently unsafe

  • There were inadequate safety warnings or instructions

Statute of Limitations in Missouri and the Parties in Interest

As a general rule, car accident claims in Missouri follow the five-year time limit counted from the date that a cause of action accrued, which is generally the day of the crash, as implied under the general personal injury case deadlines listed in Missouri Revised Statutes Section 516.120. A car crash involves violating a legal obligation to act with due diligence while on the road, putting it within the coverage of paragraph 1 or the cited provision. 

If the action involves a wrongful death, the period to file suit is three years from whenever the victim died, supposing that the deceased lingered on after the collision. This is helpful when the deceased lay in a coma for an extended period of time, and it’s been known for persons to remain vegetative for close to a decade after a mishap.  Whenever the accident victim perishes, the period to sue is frozen if the perpetrator flees the state. This is because it is effectively impossible to issue a court summons to the culpable person.

If a person dies in a car accident in Missouri, the people who can go to court to get justice follow a certain order of preference that is based on inheritance law. These parties in interest, in order of priority, are:

  • The surviving spouse or offspring of the deceased

  • The siblings of the deceased who were receiving monetary or intangible benefits from the departed

  • The descendants of the siblings 

A court-appointed plaintiff ad litem is assigned if the victim has no legal heirs. This individual is tasked with protecting the interests of whoever has a right to receive proceeds from the wrongfully killed person under succession statutes, like an heir named in a will who is outside the testator’s family.

Procedural Considerations and Post-Judgment Remedies For Missouri Car Crashes

The first action a victim or their families may take is to file a claim against an insurance company. Should the claim be denied or only partially granted, it is possible to seek clarification for the company’s reasons and then elevate the dispute to the Department of Insurance. The department will stick to issues regarding the valuation and coverage of the losses and not touch on issues regarding fault.

If there are disputes about who is at fault or if the plaintiff wishes to hold the other driver personally responsible for whatever the insurance will not cover, the recourse is to go to the trial court. A detrimental finding here is elevated to intermediate appellate courts, then the state Supreme Court.

Legal Resources for Missouri Car Accident Victims

The Missouri Department of Transportation Website

The Missouri Department of Transportation website offers information on car statistics and regulations. The site also offers a variety of information for travelers regarding the state of public highways and weather conditions currently affecting an area.

Missouri Coalition for Highway Safety

The Missouri Coalition for Highway Safety offers the most up-to-date car accident data covering the state, including preliminary data for 2023. Readers may look up data on a per-region basis and determine which causes of accidents are the most prevalent in the state. The website promotes the government’s Buckle Up, Phone Down program, which aims to reduce incidents of distracted driving.

Missouri Revisor of Statutes

This is the Missouri State Government’s own online copy of its general statutes and civil laws. The website itself is essentially a straight reproduction of the law and covers the same ground as general websites like Justia, but this particular website focuses on black-letter civil law provisions. This also covers general personal injury and specific car accident provisions on hit-and-runs and the duty to stay at the accident scene, the protections for good Samaritans and first responders, the statute of limitations and when to start counting the deadline, and who would count as a party-in-interest should the crash involve a wrongful death. The site is good for preliminary legal research before consulting with a lawyer.

Missouri Department of Revenue Website

This is the website of the Missouri Department of Revenue. This specific page discusses insurance laws with a focus on tax implications (i.e., the personal taxes associated with the sale and transfer of motor vehicles). Its discussion of car insurance requirements and the consequences of being in an accident while uninsured is detailed and reader-friendly, requiring little knowledge of revenue laws and regulations.

Missouri Department of Insurance Website

This is the website of the Missouri Department of Insurance. It supplements the Department of Revenue’s discussion of car insurance requirements. It discusses the implications of comparative fault, including the extent of the damages recoverable and which insurer to seek money from.

Missouri Legal Services

This website seeks to provide access to legal resources for low-income individuals and has resources linking to informational articles and legal forms. It is supported by the  Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, Legal Aid of Western Missouri, Legal Services of Southern Missouri, and Mid-Missouri Legal Services. The site also publishes news stories about legal aid programs around the state. 

Institute for Justice

This website contains a general and easily digestible discussion of the sovereign immunity exceptions under Missouri law that permit motor vehicle tort plaintiffs to sue the government. Car accidents are specifically excepted from the coverage of sovereign immunity. Usually, a plaintiff cannot sue sovereign bodies because of tricky issues like the expenditure of public funds in a lawsuit for a private citizen and whether or not that is a public purpose that allows for the use of taxpayers’ money. For automobile mishaps, the state waives its right to immunity.

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