By John Hilla, Michigan Bankruptcy Attorney
On Purpose or While Intoxicated—Or Neither?
A personal injury judgment is as dischargeable as any other unsecured debt, such as credit card or medical debt, so long as the judgment against you wasn’t for an “intentional tort” or for death or personal injury caused by your intoxication.
That is, if the judgment is based in an allegation of mere negligence, as is commonly the case with automobile, slip-and-fall, dog-bite, and other typical personal injury judgments, the judgment will be able to be fully discharged in either a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
Non-Dischargeability for Intentional Torts
So what is an “intentional tort?” A tort is the name of an action one person may take which may allow another person some level of legal remedy against them under civil law. It is the part of the US legal system from which nearly all legal actions which are not criminal claims or breach of contract claims arise. The commission of a tort by one person against you would be the basis for a lawsuit you might file against them in civil court for which you might claim money or other damages as a remedy.
All personal injury lawsuits are lawsuits based upon the commission of a tort, or tortious act. The first question with regard to dischargeability in bankruptcy of a judgment received after the filing of a personal injury lawsuit is, “Was this an intentional tort?
An intentional tort is an act you committed on purpose, not by accident.
The vast majority of personal injury lawsuits are based on negligence or other non-intentional torts. You didn’t mean to let your dog get out of the yard and bite that guy, but you didn’t adequately lock your gate or post any warning signs. You were negligent in keeping a dog that might be prone to biting somebody … You didn’t mean to drive your car into that lady’s swimming pool, where she just 523to be floating in an inner tube. You were negligent in the operation of your vehicle.
Those sorts of negligent, non-intentional torts are dischargeable in bankruptcy.
An intentional tort is something you intended to do to someone else, actually did, and which caused damage: assault, battery, false imprisonment, and others. If you punch somebody in the face, and they end up with their jaw wired shut for a year, destroying their up-and-coming career as a nose model for sinus medication advertisements, you will be the proud owner of a judgment for an intentional tort if they sue you and win.
That judgment will not be dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Non-Dischargeability for Death or Injury Arising from Intoxication
Additionally, a personal injury judgment for injury or death which occurred because you were intoxicated from the use of alcohol or some other drug will also not be dischargeable in bankruptcy, regardless of whether you intended to be drunk or intended to cause damage while drunk or intoxicated.
This is because Section 523(a)(9) of the US Bankruptcy Code (the Federal statute governing the bankruptcy process in the US) says this is the case. This Section of the Code makes it clear that a debt originating from “death or personal injury caused by the debtor’s operation of a motor vehicle, vessel, or aircraft if such operation was unlawful because the debtor was intoxicated from using alcohol, a drug, or another substance” is not dischargeable.
Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Can Help Even if the Debt Is Non-Dischargeable
Even if your personal injury judgment is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, you can still receive assistance from the bankruptcy process in dealing with it. A Chapter 13 “payment plan” or “reorganization” bankruptcy will allow you to repay the debt in full at 0% interest over 3-5 years.
Chapter 13 bankruptcy is, essentially, a payment plan in which you repay to your creditors what you can afford to repay over 36-60 months, after your necessary household expenses are taken into account. Debts that are dischargeable, such as credit card debt, receive whatever you are able to pay into the plan over that time-period, and then the unpaid balance is totally discharged just as it would be in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Non-dischargeable debts must be paid 100% of what the creditors holding those debts are owed, in contrast. Thus, while your credit card creditors may only be paid 0.5% of what you owe them by the end of the plan, a non-dischargeable personal injury creditor will be paid 100% of what you owe—and in priority over the dischargeable creditors.
A Chapter 13 can be of great assistance in forcing even a creditor holding a non-dischargeable claim to accept a reasonable monthly payment that still allows you to keep food on your table.
Can You Discharge a Personal Injury Judgment in Bankruptcy? The Bottom-Line
The bottom-line is that, if you are being sued for a personal injury, particularly if the suit is for an amount of money above your insurance limits or if you had no insurance if there is an auto or homeowners insurance claim involved, you should contact an experienced bankruptcy attorney immediately to explore your options.