Vehicle Crashes

Motor Vehicle Accident Overview

Motor vehicle accidents include traffic accidents involving cars, motorcycles, and commercial trucks. Personal injury lawsuits arising from motor vehicle accidents are typically governed by the law of negligence, and figuring out who is at fault in a traffic accident is a matter of deciding who was "negligent." In certain cases, motor vehicle accidents are caused by factors unrelated to the conduct of any particular driver. For example, an accident may occur due to a defect in someone's automobile or motorcycle.

Fault and Liability for Motor Vehicle Accidents

The determination of fault in an automobile accident may or may not establish the person or party liable for payment of the damages or injuries. This fact is wholly the result of legislative lobbying over the years by automobile liability insurance carriers, who have devised and promoted various alternative strategies to the common law concept that persons at fault pay for the damages. Under such legislative schemes, common law recovery for damages has been totally or partially abolished. In its place is a statutory reapportionment of liability for payment of damages. This arrangement does not mean that there is a statutory re-defining of actual "fault" per se. It simply means that many states have reapportioned the liability for fault, at least for purposes of automobile accident liability insurance. In all states, persons who fail to maintain liability insurance and who cause accidents may be personally sued, and their assets seized to satisfy any judgment against them.

Common Law

In its purest form, "fault" for causing an accident is either created by statute or defined by common law. Common law recognizes four basic levels of fault:

  1. Negligence
  2. Recklessness or wanton conduct
  3. Intentional misconduct
  4. Strict liability (irrespective of fault)

Negligence generally means careless or inadvertent conduct that results in harm or damage. It is a recurring factor in an aggregate majority of automobile accidents. It encompasses both active and passive forms of fault. That is to say, failing or omitting to do something (e.g., yielding a right-of-way) may result in liability just as much as actively doing something wrong (e.g., running a red light). Reckless or wanton conduct generally refers to a willful disregard for whether harm may result and/or a disregard for the safety and welfare of others. Strict liability may be imposed, even in the absence of fault, for accidents involving certain defective products or extra hazardous activities (such as the transporting of explosive chemicals).

Under common law, individuals who have caused an automobile accident have committed a "tort," a private wrong against another, not founded in "contract," and generally not constituting a crime. Those who have committed torts are referred to as "tortfeasors" under the law. Many automobile insurance policies continue to use the word "tortfeasor" to refer to people who are at least partly "at fault" or responsible for an accident.

There is rarely a question of fault when the tortfeasor has engaged in intentional or reckless misconduct, such as drunk driving. But when it comes to something less than intentional misconduct, e.g., general negligence, establishing fault for an automobile accident becomes more complex. Moreover, it is often the case that more than one driver or person is negligent and/or has played a role (even inadvertently) in the resulting accident. When there are multiple tortfeasors involved in an accident, state law dictates who must pay for both damage to property and injuries to the occupants of vehicles.

Motor Vehicle Statutory Violations

Every state has passed multiple laws which dictate the manner in which drivers must operate their vehicles upon public roads. Many of these statutes are actually codified versions of the common law, while others are the result of legislative initiative.

The important point to remember is that a violation of any of these statutes generally creates a presumption of negligence as a matter of law. Thus, "fault" in an accident may be established merely by citing a statute that has been violated. A tortfeasor who is presumed to have caused an accident by virtue of a statutory violation must bear the burden, in any legal dispute, of proving that he or she was not negligent, or (in the alternative) that his or her negligence was not a proximate cause in the accident. The simplest way to apply the concept of proximate cause to an automobile accident is to ask whether it would be true that, "but for" the violation, the accident would not have occurred.

Proving Fault

Establish who's at fault in a car, motorcycle, or bicycle accident or crash.

As with other types of accidents, figuring out who is at fault in a traffic accident is a matter of deciding who was careless—or "negligent," in legalese.

In many cases common sense will tell you that a driver, cyclist, or pedestrian acted carelessly, but you may not know what laws or rules that person violated. Your argument to an insurance company that another person was at fault for an accident can be strengthened if you find some "official" support for your conclusion. Here are a number of places to look for such support.

Police Reports

If the police came to the scene of your accident, particularly if they knew that someone was injured, they probably made a written accident report. Ask the traffic division of the police department how to get a copy.

Sometimes a police report plainly states an officer's opinion that someone violated a specific traffic law and that the violation caused the accident. It may even state that the officer issued a citation. Other times, the report merely mentions negligent behavior, without plainly stating that the violation caused the accident.

Regardless of how specific it is, any mention in a police report of a traffic law violation or careless driving by another person can serve as great support in showing that the other person was at fault.

State Traffic Laws

Another place to look for support for your argument that the other driver was at fault is in the state laws that govern driving. These rules of the road are contained in each state's statutes and are usually known as the vehicle code.

A simplified version of these laws (sometimes called "The Rules of the Road") is often available at a local department of motor vehicles office. The complete vehicle code is usually available at many public libraries, and all law libraries. You can also browse your state's statutes online using Nolo's help with legal research page.

In the index to the vehicle code, look for listings that may apply to your accident. For example, there may be listings for "speed limits," "right of way," or "roadway markings." If you visit a law library, the librarian may be willing to help you with your search, so don't be afraid to ask. If you find a rule that might apply to your accident, copy not only its exact wording but also the statute number, so that you can refer to it accurately when you negotiate your claim with the insurance company.

"No-Doubt" Liability

If you're involved in certain kinds of accidents, the other driver is at fault 99% of the time, and insurance companies hardly bother to argue about it.

Rear-End Collisions

If someone hits you from behind, it is virtually never your fault, regardless of why you stopped. A basic rule of the road requires a vehicle to be able to stop safely if traffic is stopped ahead of it. If it cannot stop safely, the driver is not driving as safely as the person in front.

The other sure-fire part of the rear-end accident claim is that the damage proves how it happened: If one car's front end is damaged and the other's rear end is, there can't be much argument about who struck whom. Of course, the driver of the car that hit you may have a claim against someone who caused you to stop suddenly, or against a third car that pushed his car into yours, but that doesn't change his or her responsibility for injuries to you and damage to your car.

Keep in mind, however, that even if you have been rear-ended, in a few circumstances your own carelessness may reduce your compensation under the rule of "comparative negligence." A common example is when one or both of your brake or tail lights were out, especially if the accident happened at night. Another example is if you had mechanical problems but failed to do all you could to move the vehicle off the road.

Left-Turn Accidents

A car making a left turn is almost always liable for a collision with a car coming straight in the other direction. Exceptions to this near-automatic rule are rare and difficult to prove, but they can occur if:

  • The car going straight was going well over the speed limit.
  • The car going straight went through a red light.
  • The left-turning car began its turn when it was safe, but something unexpected made it slow down or stop. This is an extremely difficult exception to use because a basic rule of the road says a car making a left turn must wait until it can safely complete the turn before moving in front of oncoming traffic.

As with a rear-end collision, the location of the damage on the cars sometimes makes it difficult for the driver to argue that the accident happened in some way other than during a left turn.

Defenses: Contributory and Comparative Negligence in Car Accident Cases

A minority of states have maintained the common law defense of contributory negligence. Its significance to automobile accident liability is that individuals cannot sue another for injuries or damages if they also contributed to the accident by his or their own negligence. For example, if they are making a left-hand turn in their vehicle and are struck by an oncoming vehicle that is traveling 10 mph over the speed limit, they cannot sue the motorist for damages if they failed to have their turn signal on and the speeding motorist did not know that they were going to turn in front of them. Under such a theory, their own negligence contributed to the accident, and, therefore, bars their right to recover from the other motorist. This situation is referred to as "pure contributory negligence." Some states have maintained a version referred to as "modified contributory negligence" in which individuals may file suit against another tortfeasor only if their own negligence contributed to the accident by less than 50 percent.

Comparative Negligence

New York and Pennsylvania utilize comparative negligence theories, and individuals may sue another motorist whether or not their own negligence played any role in the accident. However, recovery for damages will be reduced by the percentage of fault attributable to them. This situation is often referred to as "apportionment of fault" or "allocation of fault."

For example, in the above example, assume that the turning driver sues the speeding motorist for $100,000 in damages. At trial, a jury will be asked to determine what percentage of the accident was caused by the speeding and what percentage of the accident was caused by the turning driver's failure to operate the turn signal.

Assume further that the jury finds that the turning driver's own negligence contributed to the accident by 30 percent and the negligence of the other motorist contributed to the accident by 70 percent. If the jury agrees that damages are worth $100,000, the turning driver would only be able to recover $70,000 in damages (or $100,000 reduced by 30 percent caused by that driver's own negligence). If, conversely, the negligence was found to have contributed 70 percent to the accident, the driver could only recover $30,000 for the 30 percent fault for which the other tortfeasor was responsible.

Vicarious Liability and Negligent Entrustment

In New York and Pennsylvania, individuals may be liable for accidents caused by other persons who are driving their vehicle, with their direct or implied permission. In many states, both the owner and the driver of a vehicle may be named in a lawsuit under a theory of "vicarious liability." Even in the absence of "owner's liability" statutes, the common law theory of "negligent entrustment" of their vehicle to another person may result in liability exposure.

Likewise, under general negligence theories of vicarious liability and "respondeat superior" ("let the master answer"), employers may be liable (in addition to their employees) for accidents caused by their employees while operating company vehicles. Such vicarious liability is generally limited to automobile accidents caused during the course of employment and does not apply if the employee was using the vehicle beyond the scope of his or her authority.

In a roundabout way, the law permits two other circumstances for vicarious or remote liability. One involves an accident caused by a defective vehicle, in which a "product liability" lawsuit against the manufacturer may result in payment of damages. In the other, several state laws permit suits against state highway officers and departments in connection with the negligent construction or repair of highways, streets, bridges, and overpasses, that may have proximately caused an accident.

Special Cases: Rentals, Pedestrians, and More

The following points may assist individuals in the event that they are involved in a motor vehicle accident:

In a rental or leased vehicle: In New York and Pennsylvania, an individuals' own insurance policy will protect them for any automobile that they are driving. There is no need to purchase additional insurance from the automobile rental or leasing company unless they wish to increase their coverage, e.g., add collision coverage.

When a pedestrian or bicyclist is hit: In New York and Pennsylvania, if drivers strike a pedestrian or bicyclist, for want of care and defensive driving on the driver's part, the driver may be liable for the injuries caused. In New York and Pennsylvania, injured pedestrians are often covered by their own automobile policies, even though they were pedestrians at the time, and even if the driver was at fault.

When an animal is hit: When a domesticated animal is injured and/or damage occurs to the driver, there may be a presumption of fault on the part of the animal's owner for allowing the animal to run at large. If the accident was caused by driver negligence, the animal owner may file suit against the driver. The driver should render assistance to the animal only if the driver will not further endanger himself or other motorists.

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