What Canadian Snowbirds Need to Know About Car Accidents in the U.S.

U.S. Auto Accident Tips for Canadian Snowbirds

LAST UPDATED: February 13, 2024

The majority of Canadian snowbirds spend their winters in the southern U.S., and according to our Snowbird Advisor member survey in November 2023, almost 70% of Canadian snowbirds who go to the U.S. drive down for the winter, with many others having their cars shipped down from Canada.

While most snowbirds drive in the U.S. without incident, it is inevitable that car accidents and injuries do occur, so it’s important for snowbirds who drive their Canadian vehicles in the U.S. to know the answers to the following questions:

  • What are the potential issues and liability that could arise from a car accident in the U.S.?
  • Which precautions you can take in advance to protect yourself?
  • If you are involved in a car accident in the U.S., what steps you should take?

To help you understand the potential issues you could face and how to protect yourself, we interviewed two lawyers who specialize in this area and have extensive experience with cross-border car accidents:

  • Andrew Iacobelli: A personal injury lawyer at Iacobelli Law Firm with offices in Ontario and Florida, Andrew represents personal injury victims in claims involving serious injuries, catastrophic injuries, and wrongful death in Canada and the United States. 
  • Lindsay Charles: A partner at McLeish Orlando LLP, a personal injury law firm with offices in Toronto, representing clients across Ontario.

What do snowbirds need to know about auto accidents and injuries in the U.S.?  

Iacobelli: If snowbirds are injured in an accident in the United States while operating their Canadian vehicle, they are generally afforded all of the same protections as if the accident happened in their home province. That is because Canadians usually enjoy excellent auto insurance coverage. Auto insurance coverage in Canada will typically include liability coverage, as well as coverage for your own injuries and losses.  

Many Canadian auto insurance policies also include coverage to protect you and your family in the event that you are injured by another driver or vehicle that has inadequate insurance or no insurance at all. This is particularly important for Canadian snowbirds, because many U.S. States have very low minimum insurance coverage requirements. 

For example, in Florida, motor vehicles are generally not required to carry bodily injury liability coverage. As such, if a Canadian is injured in a crash with another vehicle in Florida, there is a high likelihood that the at-fault vehicle will have no insurance or very little insurance to pay for your injuries and losses. In those cases, your Canadian auto insurance policy may offer protection. 

If you are not sure whether your policy includes coverage for underinsured and uninsured motorists, call your broker before traveling to the United States. This is one of the most important insurance coverages you should have if you are traveling to the United States. The premium for this coverage is inexpensive, so many brokers include it in your coverage as a matter of best practices.

If a snowbird is injured in an auto accident in the United States, they will likely have access to immediate and excellent healthcare. The United States has a very robust healthcare system, and Canadians in need of emergency medical services will usually have no difficulty obtaining treatment. Of course, U.S. healthcare is expensive, so it is essential to purchase travel medical insurance before you head south.  

It is important to note that Canadian auto insurance law and coverage is province specific, so you need to understand the coverage available in your specific jurisdiction. If you have questions about your specific coverage, speak with your agent or broker before you head south. 

What do Canadians need to know about their auto insurance policy if they are going to be spending time in the U.S.?

Charles: It is important to connect with your insurance broker about your intended travels outside the province before leaving for your trip. Your broker will advise you if you will be covered for your intended stay in the USA, and if not, will likely have a solution to allow for your stay. You can also discuss with your broker if you have enough insurance to cover a potential claim if you’re struck by someone in the USA.

Typically, Americans have much smaller insurance policies than Ontarians. Because of that, you may want to ensure you have enough Family Protection Insurance coverage (OPCF-44r) and adequate accident benefit coverage.

Iacobelli: When Canadians plan to spend time in the U.S. with their vehicle, understanding the specifics of their auto insurance policy is crucial to ensure they are adequately covered. Here's what Canadians need to know about their auto insurance policy before heading south:

  • Probably the single most important coverage you should have is underinsured motorist coverage. This protects you if you are injured by a U.S. vehicle that does not have adequate insurance coverage. This also protects you if you are hit by an underinsured car while you are walking or riding a bicycle in the United States.
  • Liability insurance protects you in the event that you cause a crash and injure another person. This coverage protects you from legal expenses and the expense of paying a claim if you are sued in the United States. It is recommended that you have at least $1,000,000 - and preferably $2,000,000 - in liability coverage if you are going to be driving in the United States. As the Freeway billboards reveal, there are many car accident injury attorneys in the United States, and very often, Canadians will be sued if they cause a crash that results in injuries. 

What if you are injured? What are your rights as a Canadian? Where would you bring an action (Canada or the U.S.)?

Iacobelli: If a Canadian is injured in a car accident in the United States, navigating the aftermath involves understanding both the legal framework and the rights that apply to Canadians under such circumstances. The process of seeking compensation and the jurisdiction in which an action (lawsuit) should be brought can be complex, and will often depend on various factors, including the specifics of the accident, the parties involved, and the locations where legal action can be initiated.

What are Your Rights as a Canadian?

Iacobelli: As a Canadian injured in the U.S., your rights to seek compensation for injuries and damages follow U.S. laws, not Canadian laws. This is because the jurisdiction where the accident occurred generally governs the legal proceedings.  Canadians will generally enjoy all of the same rights and remedies as a U.S. citizen or resident injured in a car crash.  

Where Would You Bring an Action: Canada or the U.S.?

Charles: In many of the American States, people carry significantly less insurance than Ontarians. In Ontario, people generally carry at least $1,000,000 of auto-insurance. Because of this, if you’re from Ontario and involved in an accident in the USA, you should contact a lawyer from Ontario. Likewise, if you are from another province, you should contact a lawyer from that province. This is because you will likely want to access your own family protection coverage to be able to access your insurance policy which is more lucrative than the American’s policy.

Sometimes a lawsuit is started in both Ontario and in the jurisdiction where the incident happened. This is because you will want to access the insurance policy for the American who hit you first, before accessing your Ontario insurance policy.

Iacobelli: This will depend on available insurance coverage. Although Canadians will have a right to bring an action (lawsuit) in the State where the crash occurred, they will also often have a claim in their home province as well. The analysis is complex and usually requires a lawyer with experience in cross border cases to consider a number of case specific factors. In our experience representing Canadians injured in the United States, very often Canadians will have to bring claims in both the United States and Canada.  

What if you injure someone else? What is your potential liability? Would an action be brought against you in Canada or the U.S.?

Iacobelli: If a Canadian is involved in a car crash in the United States and injures someone else, liability will depend on the laws of the particular state where the crash occurred. In general, the injured party will usually be able to make claims for their pain and suffering, and economic losses such as medical expenses and income loss.  

Legal claims arising from car accidents are generally filed in the jurisdiction where the accident occurred. State courts have jurisdiction over incidents that happen within their state. In some circumstances, a Canadian may be sued in Federal Court in the United States, but this is quite rare.  

If you find yourself in this situation, notify your insurance provider immediately. Your auto insurance policy will include liability coverage that applies to accidents occurring in the U.S. Your insurer can advise you on the next steps and may provide legal representation if necessary.

Does each U.S. state have different laws that may affect Canadians involved in an auto accident differently? Does it matter which province in Canada you reside in?

Iacobelli: Yes, each state in the United States has its own set of laws that could affect Canadian snowbirds involved in an accident, and these differences can significantly impact the outcome of any legal or insurance claims process.

However, the province in Canada where a snowbird resides is generally not relevant to the U.S. legal process itself, but it may affect their insurance coverage and requirements.

The bottom line

It is essential before heading to the U.S. with your Canadian owned vehicle that you check with your auto insurance provider about the amount of time you can spend in the U.S. and your coverage should you get into an accident in the U.S., or injure someone, or become injured yourself.

It is particularly important to ask if your policy includes coverage for underinsured and uninsured motorists. If it’s nor included, you can add it, as it is not usually very expensive. 

It is also essential to buy adequate travel medical insurance coverage in case you are injured in a car accident and require emergency medical treatment in the U.S., which can be very expensive if you don’t have coverage.

Disclaimer: The material provided on the SnowbirdAdvisor.ca website is for informational purposes only and does NOT constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial, real estate, medical or other advice, and should not be relied on as such. If you require such advice, you should retain a qualified professional to advise you.

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