The job of trying to decide fault to someone involved in a car accident can be a very challenging and a complex issue. More often than not, this is the case when more than two people or parties are involved. Fault, in this context, refers to the party (person, driver) responsible or legally liable for property damages or physical injuries suffered in an accident. Determining who is at fault is the first step in the victim(s) possibly recovering financial expenses stemming from the accident.
The decision on who is at fault, as usually is the case with most accident claims, hinges on the negligence of those involved. Negligence is a measure of the lack of care on the part of drivers in the operation of their vehicles and obeying traffic laws. Only those who can be proven to have been negligent can be on the hook for damages to a victim or the victim’s family. Different jurisdictions treat negligence in different ways, further complicating the issue.
How is fault determined?
In most cases, the first steps in determining fault for a vehicle accident involves the insurance company representative and lawyers reviewing such things as police reports to see if a law enforcement officer cited one party or the other for negligence in the accident. While police citations of negligence or blame do not necessarily prove fault, they can go a long way in assigning responsibility and building a case for a specific party’s fault. Other materials that the insurance companies and car accident lawyers will utilize are statements from competent witnesses. Witnesses that had clear, unobstructed and unbiased accounts of the accident can help to substantiate negligence claims by detailing the events that transpired before, during and after the accident took place.
Determining fault – which can be negligent, careless or a willful act – can be the difference between a victim being compensated for property damage, medical costs, lost wages and/or pain/suffering, or not.
Typically, the driver of the vehicle is at fault because they were:
- Negligent driving which can come in many forms, such as texting-while-driving, drunk driving or any number of instances where a person if careless or unwittingly engaging in behavior that may cause another vehicle or person harm.
- Reckless driving by indulging in behavior where a person willfully or willingly knows that they are going to cause harm.
Negligence and Comparative Negligence.
Negligence can often be demonstrated through evidence that a person was careless. In general, drivers owe a duty of care to all others on the road. By being careless in the operation of a motor vehicle, a driver breaches that duty and any injuries resulting can make that driver liable.
In many jurisdictions, the fault assigned to a particular person in a vehicle accident may be mitigated or reduced, where the victim suing is shown to have also been negligent to some degree. The degree of the victim’s negligence will in most situations proportionally decrease the liability on the part of the other individual, and thus decrease damages. Where a few or even several people are involved in an accident, the assignment of liability may be spread among that group in different amounts. Juries will typically assign liability in percentages. For example, in a car accident mostly caused by “Person-A”, he or she may be 90% at fault for the accident, while “Person-B”, the victim, was still careless to the point of being responsible for 10% of the fault. This is a basic example of comparative negligence.
Recovery of Damages.
Various states handle damages differently based on the assignment of liability. In some states, a person cannot recover damages at all if their own negligence was at least 50% of the cause of the accident. In fact, in a few jurisdictions those whose negligence in any way, even if small, contributed to the accident, they are not allowed to recover (this is the concept of “contributory negligence”). Still, in other states, recovery will be in direct proportion to the fault assigned. Thus, in the example above, “Person-A” would only owe 90% of the damages to “Person-B”, as the whole damages amount is reduced by 10% of fault by “Person-B”.
In determining fault, lawyers will bring in as much evidence as possible to prove the other side was at fault, or at least enough to reduce liability on the part of their own client. In determining just who was careless, and to what degree, witnesses and more importantly police reports will potentially be helpful in making these arguments. In these accident reports, police officers may speak out as to the cause of the accident and the careless behavior of one or more of the drivers, as well as cite to certain traffic laws that were apparently violated in the accident. By demonstrating a violation of one or more traffic laws that led to the accident, a jury may be more inclined to assign liability or greater liability to the person who violated those laws.
There are a wide range of factors that go into determining fault. Because of the sometimes substantial – and even life-changing – consequences of a negligent accident, it is critically important that the steps you take to protect yourself after an accident are smart, swift and prudent. The best way to protect yourself, your property, and your loved ones after a car accident is to speak with a legal team or lawyer to ensure that your legal and financial rights are best protected.