Car Accidents Caused by Negligence

Understanding the legal theory behind the "Who was at fault?" question in car accident cases.

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 he or she should not have done (for example, running a red light or speeding), or by failing to do something that he or she 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).

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

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 keep complete and detailed records of all injuries, medical expenses, and property damage. Learn more about gathering evidence to 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 he or she was 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 into the middle of 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. Learn more about contributory and comparative negligence in car accident cases.

Getting Help With a Car Accident Case

In fairly rare circumstances, it might make sense to handle your car accident claim yourself. But in most instances—including crashes that result in significant injury, or where fault is anything less than obvious—having a lawyer on your side is crucial to getting the best result. Learn more about how a lawyer can help with a car accident claim, and get tips on finding the right lawyer for you and your case.

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

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