One of the most stressful parts of getting into a car accident is figuring out fault and liability. Determining who is at fault can be complex and with many factors involved that may not be readily apparent at the scene. Accidents should always be investigated to uncover any hidden causes and mitigating factors that might affect the finding of fault and liability. Sometimes, more than one driver is at fault, and this becomes even more complicated when it comes to liability for the damages of injuries that occur in a car accident.
Fault and Liability: First determine the cause
The first step in any crash investigation, even before determining who is at fault, is to establish the cause of the accident. Depending on the cause, there could be any number of different parties at fault, including corporations and government entities. There are many causes of car accidents, but the top three are negligence of the driver, a defect in an automobile or dangerous road conditions.
Driver negligence is the most common cause of car accidents. Negligence is a wide topic an it can mean many things. Driver negligence is a common subject in today’s world as it encompasses drunk or impaired driving, as well as distracted driving. Beyond the more serious drunk driving, basic inattention to driving is a form of negligence, and can include:
- Texting or using a cellphone
- Adjusting the radio or CD player
- Adjusting the vehicle controls
- Looking at the vehicle information system
- Looking in the back seat (for instance, handling children)
- Looking at the side of the road (for instance, looking at an accident)
- Eating or drinking while driving
- Reading while driving (for instance, a map, directions or a newspaper)
- Shaving or putting on makeup
These activities can lead to inattention and negligent actions such as running a red light or not respecting the lane markings, and are a major cause of accidents.
Sometimes the cause of an accident is a defect in a vehicle of which the driver is not aware. There have been several of these types of cases in the news, such as vehicles whose brakes spontaneously fail to stop the vehicle. These are manufacturer’s defects and can be the cause of accidents for which the manufacturer is at fault.
Dangerous road conditions
Governments and municipalities are required to maintain roadways in order to keep them safe. When this fails to happen, and an accident occurs, the cause may be placed on the entity responsible for the road. This is common in construction zones, especially those that are not safely identified.
Once the cause of the crash is determined, then fault can be determined. If you’re involved in a car accident, whether a minor fender bender or a multi-car fatal pileup, it’s important to understand the basics of what car accident fault and liability are and how they are determined. In their details, these concepts vary among the states, but the basics remain the same.
Common law recognizes four basic levels of fault
Finding fault is the first step towards determining the amount of liability in a car accident case. Fault should be determined on the basis of many factors, including police reports, eyewitness testimonies and examination of the evidence. Where the fault for an accident is placed is the most important factor in determining the outcome of a car crash case. This is why most attorneys advise clients to contact them as soon as possible after a car accident. It’s important to ensure that no fault is admitted to without proper evidence or investigation. For instance, what if there was a defect in one of the vehicles involved, or a hazardous road condition that caused an accident? It may appear that you are at fault when in fact there was another reason. If you are unaware of an underlying cause, you might admit to being at fault and give up your rights to protection and compensation. Here are the basic types of fault:
Negligence is the most common type of fault found in car accident cases. This means that a driver has not used ordinary care and caution when operating their motor vehicle and this has resulted in damage or injury to something or someone else. Negligence can happen when a driver fails to follow the rules of the road, such as not yielding to oncoming traffic.
Recklessness is a higher level of negligence that indicates that the person was not only negligent, but they were willfully so. In other words, they knew, or by any reasonable standard they should have known, what they were doing was wrong, and they did it anyway. Mental state is taken into account and becomes important in the determination between recklessness and the next level of intentional negligence.
The highest level of negligence is intentional misconduct. Recklessness generally involves a lack of intent, say if someone runs a red light because they are in a hurry, but they knew it was wrong. Intentional negligence goes a step further and involves a person who performs the action intentionally. For instance, someone who runs a red light because they are in a mental state of anger or agitation and they just don’t care.
Strict liability is used in specific situations and is used regardless of fault. This can be determined in cases such as the transportation of hazardous materials (in an improper manner).
Statute of Limitations
Sometimes, injuries incurred in car accidents do not become apparent for weeks, months or sometimes years after an accident. However, there are time limits on filing a suit for a car accident claim. These limits are the state specific statutes of limitations. Basically, this means that if you do not file a lawsuit before the date set as the limitation, you will lose all rights to a future claim. In some states the period is very short, but it is typically between six months and two years. If you are not filing a suit right away, you should know the limit in your state in the event that you begin to experience injury or hardship related to a previous accident.
Fault and Liability for Motor Vehicle Accidents
In general, insurance companies determine fault based on the state’s legal definition of negligence. There are different terms such as comparative negligence and contributory negligence. Car accident attorneys know the nuances of state law regarding fault and liability in car accidents and are the best resource for protecting your rights if you have been involved in a car accident.