Determining Fault in Car Crash Claims

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 How is Fault Determined in a Car Crash?

Car accidents are usually just that: accidents. They are the result of an unintentional act, or negligence, making it difficult to determine who was actually at fault. Still, if a lawsuit has been filed, or a claim made with one or more insurance companies, there will have to be a determination of who was at fault or how much each driver was at fault.

Negligence must be proven in almost all cases where a plaintiff has filed a lawsuit after being injured in a car crash. There are several elements that must be proven in a negligence or personal injury cause of action before a plaintiff can recover. The elements of a negligence claim are:

  1. Duty: The defendant owed the plaintiff a duty under the particular circumstances. In the case of a car crash, a driver owes the other drivers a duty to follow the rules of the road, obey the traffic laws and signs, and to use the care a reasonable person would use under the circumstances. For example, driving slower if the weather makes driving more dangerous because the roads are wet or visibility is lower.
  2. Breach: The defendant breached the duty to the plaintiff by acting or failing to act in a particular way. For example, the driver of a vehicle did not slow down even though it was raining and the roads were very wet, or foggy conditions made it hard to see but the defendant continued to drive at their normal speed. A driver who does not stop at a red light or yield to a driver who has the right of way has also breached their duty to other drivers.
  3. Causation: The defendant’s breach of their duty caused the plaintiff harm. The defendant acted (or did not act) in a way that injured the plaintiff. In the case of a car crash, the defendant’s failure to follow the traffic laws or use reasonable care under the circumstances caused the crash that injured the plaintiff.
  4. Damages: The plaintiff was injured, harmed, or otherwise damaged by the defendant’s actions or inaction. A driver who is driving over the speed limit or too fast considering the road conditions and is unable to stop in time might rear-end another vehicle. The driver of the second vehicle suffers whiplash or some other injury and incurs medical bills. They are also unable to work for an extended period of time. They might file a lawsuit to recover compensatory damages, like medical expenses and lost wages.

Causation is a very important element of a negligence claim. The person who caused the crash is the one at fault. There are many different types of evidence that can be helpful to determine fault and therefore liability. Some forms of evidence might include:

  • Physical Evidence: physical evidence might include damage to the vehicle(s), paint from one vehicle on the other vehicle, skid marks on the road, damage to road signs, structures, or other physical objects at the site of the accident.
  • Witness Testimony: Witnesses might include bystanders, other drivers, and/or passengers in one or more of the vehicles involved in the accident.
  • Photos or Videos: Since most people have cell phones with photo and video capability, it is very easy to collect photo and video evidence of the accident scene immediately after the crash. In some cases a witness might even have video of the accident happening.
  • Dashboard Camera Evidence: The use of dashboard cameras has increased in recent years, and footage from the dash cam in a car involved in an accident can be valuable. This is also true for dash cam footage from other vehicles at the scene when the crash occurred. For example, a vehicle with a dash cam might be stopped at an intersection and the camera could record a vehicle running a red light or making an illegal turn and causing an accident.
  • Police Reports: An important step after a car accident is to notify the police and make sure there is a report. The police report is often entered as evidence during the trial and provides important details from the scene of the accident.
  • Traffic Laws: Accidents can happen even when everyone involved is following the law, however traffic laws can be consulted to determine if there were any laws broken that may have caused or contributed to the crash.
  • Medical Records: A person who was injured in a car accident will need to be examined by a doctor to establish any injuries that they might be able to be compensated for in a lawsuit. The medical records will illustrate the extent of any injuries and might also contain information regarding how the injuries were sustained.
  • Accident Reconstruction Evidence: There is accident reconstruction technology that can simulate or “re-enact” the accident and might be able to illustrate who was at fault.

All of the above can provide important information to the judge or jury who has been tasked with figuring out who was at fault in a car crash case.

What if the Victim is also at Fault?

In some negligence cases the evidence shows that the victim, or the person injured, was also at fault. For example, if one driver ran a red light and another driver made an illegal turn and they crashed, it can be difficult to determine who was actually at fault for each driver’s injuries. The actions of both drivers contributed to the accident.

In these types of cases the court will apply the legal doctrines known as comparative negligence or contributory negligence. Whether the court uses comparative or contributory negligence will depend on the jurisdiction where the lawsuit was filed. If a victim was also at fault for the accident they might have their damages reduced or be unable to recover at all.

Comparative negligence can be either pure comparative negligence or modified comparative negligence. In a pure comparative negligence state a plaintiff who was partially at fault can still recover. The amount of their damages award will reflect how much they were at fault. For example, if a plaintiff is awarded $100,000 but the jury also determined they were 80 percent at fault, they will receive $20,000 in damages.

In a modified comparative negligence state a plaintiff cannot recover if they were 50 percent or more at fault for the accident. In some places that number is 51 percent (the plaintiff must be 51 percent responsible before they are barred from recovery). If the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to the accident but the evidence indicates they were only 49 percent at fault, they can recover and their damages will be reduced accordingly.

Contributory negligence is a less commonly used theory. This approach is more extreme and bars recovery if the plaintiff’s negligence contributed to the accident in any way. Therefore, if the court determines that the plaintiff was even one percent at fault for the crash, they cannot recover any damages. The only jurisdictions that use pure contributory negligence are Maryland, Washington D.C., Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia.

Should I Hire a Lawyer for Assistance in Filing a Car Crash Claim?

If you have been injured in a car accident you should consult a car accident lawyer. An experienced car accident lawyer can provide you with valuable assistance in determining who was at fault, whether you have a claim for damages, and what that claim might be worth.

They can identify the laws that apply, anticipate the issues that might arise during the lawsuit, negotiate a possible settlement with the defendant, and represent you in court. The laws regarding contributory and comparative negligence vary from state to state, so it is important to consult with a qualified attorney in your state.

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