Auto accident lawsuits are typically negligence lawsuits alleging that another driver’s carelessness caused an accident, leading to injuries to the plaintiff and/or damage to their vehicle. In some auto accident lawsuits multiple drivers might be at fault.

Negligence is the failure to exercise reasonable care, or in the case of an auto accident, the failure to take reasonable precautions as a driver. Most auto accidents are not the result of intentional acts, but result from one or more drivers being careless in a way that harms someone else or damages their vehicle.

For a plaintiff to succeed in an auto accident lawsuit based on the theory of negligence, they must prove that the other driver involved in the accident was at fault. The plaintiff must introduce evidence that the other driver breached their duty to act as a reasonable driver and that breach resulted in injuries to the plaintiff.

There are several circumstances that might lead to a claim of negligence that caused an auto accident. Some situations include:

  • A failure of one driver to obey traffic laws, like speed limits, stop signs, yield signs, or traffic lights.
  • Driving while distracted or failing to be vigilant while operating a vehicle. The most common example is texting or otherwise using a cell phone while driving.
  • Failing to maintain control of the vehicle. This might include stopping suddenly, swerving into another lane, or failing to stop before entering an intersection.
  • Not operating the vehicle’s equipment properly. This might include not using a turn signal when preparing to make a turn or changing lanes. Other examples include not using high beams appropriately, improper use of hazard lights, not using your headlights when conditions require them, or having broken brake lights.

What is Needed to Prove an Auto Accident Claim?

Proving an auto accident claim based on the legal theory of negligence requires that the plaintiff prove the following elements:

Duty of Care: All drivers have a duty to other drivers to drive safely, obey traffic laws, and maintain control of their vehicle. The standard is generally determined by what a reasonably prudent person (driver) would do under the same or similar circumstances.

Breach of the Duty of Care: The plaintiff must prove that the defendant breached the duty of care owed to other drivers. In other words, that the defendant failed to drive safely and as a reasonable driver would have under the circumstances. For example, a driver who did not obey the traffic signals and stop when they were supposed to breached their duty to other drivers by putting them at risk of harm.

Causation: In addition to proving that the defendant breached the duty of care, the plaintiff must also show that the breach caused the auto accident and harmed the plaintiff. If the plaintiff does not have sufficient evidence that the defendant’s negligence caused the plaintiff’s injuries, they will probably not be found liable. Causation can be difficult to prove, especially if there were multiple drivers involved in the accident or if there is evidence that the plaintiff was also negligent and may have contributed to some of their injuries.

Damages: The plaintiff must also submit proof that they have been damaged by the injuries sustained in the accident. Damages might be physical, psychological, and/or financial.

What Types of Damages are Available in an Auto Accident Lawsuit?

Plaintiffs who prevail at trial are compensated financially for their injuries. Plaintiffs are awarded compensatory damages for:

  • Medical expenses, including future medical care that will be necessary.
  • Rehabilitation costs.
  • Lost wages due to being unable to work after the accident.
  • Loss of future income if the injuries are so serious that they prevent the plaintiff from working for an extended period of time.
  • Pain and suffering for both physical injuries and emotional distress.
  • Property damage to the plaintiff’s vehicle.
  • Loss of consortium, which is awarded when a victim’s injuries prevent them from having normal sexual relations with their parnter or spouse.
  • Funeral and/or burial expenses.

In some cases punitive damages might be awarded to the plaintiff. Punitive damages serve the purpose of punishing the defendant for their actions. Typically they are not awarded in a case where only negligence has been shown. The defendant’s conduct must have been more egregious than mere negligence. Depending on the state, the type of conduct leading to an award of punitive damages might be referred to as gross negligence, recklessness, or wanton disregard for the safety of others.

Are Any Defenses Available?

A defendant in an auto accident lawsuit may be able to raise the defenses of contributory or comparative negligence. The defendant must show that the plaintiff was also negligent and that their negligence either caused or contributed to their injuries.

Accident victims are often other drivers who owe the same duty of care to everyone else on the road. If a defendant can prove that the plaintiff breached that duty too, they might be able to avoid some or all of the legal responsibility for the plaintiff’s injuries.

Comparative Negligence: Comparative negligence looks at all parties who might be responsible and allocates fault between them. A defendant can use the plaintiff’s actions as either a total or partial defense. They may allege that the plaintiff actually caused the accident and the defendant was not at fault at all, or that the plaintiff was partially at fault and therefore the defendant should not be held responsible for all of the plaintiff’s injuries.

Most states use one of two forms of comparative negligence:

  • Pure comparative negligence: In these jurisdictions plaintiffs who have been injured in an auto accident can recover for their injuries even if they were found to be more responsible than the defendant.
    • For example, if the defendant was found to be 25% responsible and the plaintiff 75%, the plaintiff can still recover. The total amount of damages will be reduced by the amount of the plaintiff’s fault (so in this case, 75%). If the plaintiff’s total damages were $100,000, they would only receive $25,000 from the defendant.
  • Modified Comparative Negligence: In most states that use a modified comparative negligence system, a defendant can escape all liability if they can prove that the plaintiff is more than 50% responsible for the accident.

Contributory Negligence: A few states, including Washington D.C. and the surrounding states of Maryland and Virginia, use the contributory negligence system. Under the doctrine of contributory negligence, a victim or plaintiff cannot recover at all if the defendant proves the plaintiff’s own negligence contributed to the accident.

Contributory negligence can lead to harsh results for some plaintiffs who are only slightly at fault, yet still prevented from receiving any compensation for their injuries. Thus this system is not the norm throughout most of the United States.

Are There any Auto Accident Laws Specific to the D.C. Area?

Washington D.C. has its own specific laws about auto accident claims. First of all, it is important to know that Washington D.C. is a “no fault” jurisdiction. That means that if you are injured in an auto accident you file a claim with your own insurance company to pay for your injuries. Drivers carry insurance that covers their own injuries, rather than insurance that will pay for someone else’s injuries. This is known as “personal injury protection” or “PIP” coverage.

In the event the injuries are serious and/or permanent, or the amount of the damages exceeds your insurance policy, you can file a lawsuit against the other driver.

No fault does not apply to property damage, so if your vehicle has been damaged in an accident you will file a claim with the other driver’s insurance company.

The other important thing to know about auto accident lawsuits in Washington D.C. is that Washington D.C. is a contributory negligence jurisdiction. If you are even one percent at fault for the accident, you cannot recover damages from the other driver.

For example, a driver might be negligent and lose control of their vehicle, crossing into the other lane and causing an accident, However, if the plaintiff was speeding and that also contributed to the accident or the plaintiff’s injuries, the plaintiff cannot recover. Even if the plaintiff speeding was only a small factor in the accident.

What are the Steps to File an Auto Accident Lawsuit in D.C.?

If you have been injured in an auto accident in D.C. and your injuries are severe or permanent, you can file a lawsuit. According to the statute of limitations, you must file your lawsuit within three years from the date of the accident. If the other party involved in the accident is the government, the statute of limitations is only six months.

While you will initially attempt to resolve the case with the insurance company, it is important that you and your attorney keep in mind the statute of limitations as things proceed. If you fail to file a claim for any damages that are not covered by your insurance policy within the three year statute of limitations you lose the opportunity to recover.

Do I Need to Hire a Lawyer for Help with an Auto Accident Claim?

If you have been involved in an auto accident in Washington D.C., you should hire a personal injury attorney who is familiar with the laws in the D.C. area. Plaintiffs and defendants should consult with an experienced attorney for help with their auto accident lawsuit. They can advise you of your rights, your chances of recovery, and any possible defenses you might have. Your attorney can also communicate with the insurance companies, negotiate on your behalf, and represent you in court.