Car Accidents Caused by Driver Negligence

Understand the legal theory behind the all-important "Who was at fault?" question in car accident cases.

By , J.D., University of San Francisco School of Law

When it's time to prove fault for a car accident, chances are that the drivers involved, their insurance companies, and their lawyers will rely on the legal concept of negligence in making their respective cases. In this article, we'll:

  • define negligence in the context of a car accident case
  • explain how to prove that a driver was negligent
  • discuss legal duties when it comes to safe driving, and
  • look at possible defenses to a negligence claim.

What Is Negligence?

Negligence is careless conduct that ends up causing harm to another person. In a car accident scenario, a person can be negligent by:

  • doing something that they should not have done (for example, running a red light or speeding), or
  • failing to do something that they should have done (for example, failing to yield, not stopping for a pedestrian, or forgetting to turn on headlights while driving at night).

Here's another way of thinking about negligence: A driver must use reasonable care to avoid injuring other motorists, passengers, or pedestrians. If a driver is not reasonably careful, and someone is harmed as a result, the driver (and the driver's car insurance carrier) can be financially liable for that person's injuries and other losses ("damages" in the language of the law).

What Are Some Examples of Driver Negligence?

The possibilities are almost endless, but a driver can be considered negligent by:

  • entering an intersection after the traffic signal has already changed to red
  • failing to use a turn signal when approaching an intersection, then making a left or right turn rather than proceeding straight
  • following another vehicle too closely in stop-and-go traffic, and being unable to avoid a rear-end collision, and
  • using a phone, eating, or engaging in other distractions while driving.

Learn more about the basics of negligence in an injury case.

What's the Difference Between an Accident and Negligence?

Everyone knows that accidents happen. In the context of driving, thousands of crashes occur every day across the country—at stoplights, in intersections, in parking lots. The drivers involved almost certainly never intend to end up in a crash. That's what makes them accidents, after all (as opposed to intentional conduct).

But in many of these crash scenarios, one person's carelessness or negligence is deemed the cause of the accident. And in the eyes of the law, that negligent person is seen as legally responsible for the crash, and financially responsible for all resulting harm experienced by others, including injuries and vehicle damage.

A related question might be: Is it possible for a car crash to occur and truly be deemed an "accident," in the sense that no one involved was negligent? It's possible, but it's certainly not common. One example might be:

  • A freeway driving situation in which two drivers are traveling at the speed limit with an open lane between them.
  • Simultaneously, both drivers indicate a lane change with their respective turn signals, both check their mirrors, both look over their shoulders, and both enter the open lane at the same time.
  • Neither driver sees the other until they collide in a "sideswipe."

Was either driver negligent? Did they both act with the "reasonable care" we described above? It's hard to say, but a case could be made that this was a true accident where no one was at fault.

Proving a Driver's Negligence

Negligence will come into play any time fault for a car accident is in dispute, whether as part of the insurance claim process, or in court.

In a car accident lawsuit, if you're the plaintiff, you need to be able to establish all of the following:

The law required the defendant to be reasonably careful. The law requires drivers to use reasonable caution in all facets of vehicle operation, so this one is a given.

The defendant was not careful. This is called "breaching" (or violating) the duty of care. In determining whether a driver was sufficiently careful, the law compares the driver's conduct with the conduct expected of a "reasonable person." If the defendant's behavior falls short of how a reasonable person would have acted under the same circumstances, the defendant has violated the duty of reasonable care. Examples of conduct expected of a reasonable driver include:

  • stopping at a red light
  • watching for crossing pedestrians, and
  • following the vehicle in front at a safe distance.

The defendant's conduct caused your injuries. For example, Paula is suing Dan, claiming that she suffered neck strain when Dan rear-ended her car. Paula must provide evidence that her injuries resulted from the car accident, not some other event. If Paula hurt her neck the day before the collision while playing golf, she'll have difficulty establishing that Dan's conduct caused her injuries.

The plaintiff suffered measurable losses. Car accident victims are entitled to compensation for injuries, lost wages or earning capacity, pain and suffering, and vehicle damage. If there aren't any provable losses, the plaintiff can't recover anything. For example, if Paula in the above example doesn't suffer any physical injury, doesn't miss any work time because of the accident, and her car sustains no damage, she cannot recover compensation from Dan.

The lesson here is that, if you're the plaintiff, it's important to gather the right evidence to help you prove your case, including:

  • any police report generated over the crash
  • photographs of the car accident scene
  • witness statements
  • medical records and bills related to treatment of car accident injuries
  • vehicle damage inspection reports and repair estimates, and
  • proof of time missed at work/records detailing lost income.

Use this checklist of records to gather after a car accident and learn more about evidence that can help your car accident claim.

What Legal Duties Does a Driver Have?

The law requires drivers to use reasonable care to avoid harming anyone else on the road. But what exactly does this entail? Let's look at some examples.

Driving at a reasonable speed . Drivers have a duty to drive at a reasonable, prudent speed in light of the existing traffic, road, visibility, and weather conditions. Even driving at the speed limit can be considered negligent if, for example, visibility is low, the weather is bad, or the circumstances warrant particular caution (driving by a school where you can expect children to be crossing, for example).

Vigilance and keeping a proper lookout. Drivers have a duty to be alert and to maintain a careful lookout for other vehicles, pedestrians, and road hazards. Drivers are expected to see the things that an ordinary, prudent person would see. Failure to do so can constitute negligence.

Maintaining control of the car. Drivers are expected to keep their vehicle under control at all times. Negligence may be inferred if a car loses control (by overturning or leaving the roadway) for any reason.

Maintenance and proper use of vehicle equipment. Drivers are expected to maintain their vehicles in safe working order. For example, lights and brakes should be working properly.

Driver Duties Imposed by State Law

Each state's motor vehicle laws govern how drivers are expected to behave on the road. In certain circumstances, violating a motor vehicle law gives rise to a "presumption" of negligence—meaning that the defendant must present evidence to prove that they were not negligent.

Examples of conduct that may give rise to a presumption of negligence include:

  • driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • violating right-of-way rules, including a pedestrian's right of way, and
  • driving on the wrong side of the road.

Defenses to Negligence In a Car Accident Case

Certain legal defenses might be utilized to lower or erase the defendant's liability in a car accident case (that is, the amount of compensation the defendant must pay the plaintiff).

For example, if a pedestrian runs onto the road and is hit by a car, the driver might escape all liability. or may only have to pay for a portion of the pedestrian's injuries. This brings us to a related, common question.

Can You Seek Compensation If You Were Partially Responsible for the Car Accident?

Let's assume that your own negligence might have played a part in causing the accident that led to your injury claim. Maybe you were driving a few miles an hour over the speed limit, or you failed to use your turn signal. As long as the other driver's share of fault is greater than yours, your options—and your chances of recovering at least some compensation—usually won't change.

In a handful of states, when an injured person shares any amount of fault for a car accident, they can be prevented from getting compensation from other at-fault drivers if their case goes to court, under a harsh rule called "contributory negligence." But in most states, a more lenient rule called "comparative negligence" lets partially-at-fault claimants still collect compensation from other parties. Learn more about contributory and comparative negligence in car accident cases.

Should I Hire a Car Accident Lawyer?

You don't always need a lawyer's help when you're making an injury claim after a car accident. If the key issue of fault for the accident isn't in dispute, you don't need to undertake the (potentially tough) job of proving the other driver's negligence.

But when the insurance adjuster for the other driver's insurance company is refusing to accept fault for the accident, and is even pointing the finger at you, having an experienced legal professional on your side can make a big difference. A car accident lawyer will know how to put your best case against the other driver together, and can handle the kinds of back-and-forth negotiations that are often crucial to getting the best result.

Learn more about how a lawyer can help with a car accident claim.

Next Steps After a Car Accident

In some circumstances, it might make sense to handle your car accident claim yourself. If you're confident that you can come away with a fair result, check out these articles to learn more about the car accident claim process:

And for in-depth guide to navigating each phase of a car accident claim, get How to Win Your Personal Injury Claim, by Joseph L. Matthews (Nolo).

In some instances—including crashes that result in significant injury, or where fault is anything less than obvious—there's no substitute for having an experienced legal professional on your side. Learn more about what to expect when meeting with a car accident lawyer. You can use the tools on this page to connect with an injury lawyer in your area.

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