The subject of determining fault has no doubt spawned many a fist fight, and the debate on the best way to allocate fault is still alive and well.
This subject can get very complicated, but I’ll try and simplify it down to a quick study.
I have to say that negligence laws differ in each State, so I am going to generalize and speak about negligence and fault as it is addressed in the vast majority of the United States, and we’ll omit specific exceptions due to locale. If you have a specific question about tort liability or negligence in auto accident, please seek out a competent attorney or professional. The information presented here is not legal advice and is for informational purposes only.
When an automobile accident occurs, somebody is always at fault, right? For the purposes of this writing, well assume a claim has been filed against the auto insurance carrier for a guy that turned left in front of you at a green light. You have a third party claim; a claim that is based entirely on the fact that the other person was at fault. Before we talk about how fault should be determined, let’s define what we mean by “at fault”. Another way of saying it is an at fault person was negligent.
Here is the formal definition of negligence from TheFreeDictionary.com:
Conduct that falls below the standards of behavior established by law for the protection of others against unreasonable risk of harm. A person has acted negligently if he or she has departed from the conduct expected of a reasonably prudent person acting under similar circumstances.
SOURCE: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/negligence, retrieved on October 9, 2013.
So, fault = negligence, and when you behave in a way that is negligent (below the standard expected of you / duty), if as a result of that action you cause another person property damage or injury, then a court of law might determine you are at fault and legally liable to pay for any damages that the other person proves were a foreseeable result of your negligent behavior. Like I said, this subject could be complicated, but hang in there, it will get clearer.
Let’s break it down a little further.
To be negligent, a person must first have a duty to breach by being unreasonable. Make sense?
For example, if you own an alligator farm, you have a duty to keep the alligators from harming others. If you own a limo company, you have a duty to keep your vehicles in good operating condition. If you are a hairdresser, you have a duty to be properly experienced and skilled in hair cutting and styling. You get the idea. . . As the driver of an automobile, you have a duty to obey traffic laws and a duty to operate your vehicle in a safe manner that does not impose damage or injury on any other driver. You have a duty to act as a reasonable driver should act. I hope that makes sense.
NOW, let’s use an example to recap and expand on how fault is determined in an auto accident:
Sally is stopped at a four way red light. Directly across from her (facing her) is Jonas also stopped at the red light. Both lights turn green at the same time and both Sally and Bill take off. Before either of them make it across the intersection, a collision occurs and Bill careens off the road due to his steering going out and he runs down a couple of mailboxes, two shrubs, part of a chain link fence at the school on the corner and takes out a birdbath in front of one house. They call the police out to the scene and after speaking to both people, the police make a report and put a factor on the report that Bill failed to yield the right of way on a left turn which contributed to the accident.
So, who is the negligent party for the damages caused in this accident? Will Bill’s insurance pay for Sally’s damages and all the ensuing damage? Let’s see if we can reason through it . . .
What is the duty that has been breached?
Answer: the duty to operate a vehicle without harming others.
- Was somebody NEGLIGENT in breaching the duty? MAYBE.
- Did Bill have his blinker on?
- Could Sally have just stayed put and avoided the accident?
- What if Bill denies that he was attempting a left turn?
- Did Sally attempt a turn?
- Could either of them have hit their brakes faster?
- What if Sally had simply swerved out of the way when she saw the eminent collision?
- Did Bill have an obstructed view of Sally?
- Was Sally on her cell phone? Was Bill on his cell phone?
- Were there any passengers? Any distractions in the vehicle?
- Did Bill have a vehicle malfunction?
I hope you see the point. . . fault is determined by evaluating facts regarding the behavior of the parties at the time of the accident. Nobody has all the facts, so we can never be totally sure of the exact amount of fault that everyone has following an accident. The question to be answered is whether somebody did anything unreasonable that we expect drivers NOT to do. Although in the subject case it is likely that the majority of fault lies with Bill for attempting a left turn in front of Sally, we can’t be for sure what happened. We can deduce that Bill is likely at fault by circumstantial evidence (the police at the scene found reason to include the left turn factor on the report).
Getting a statement from the police officer as to why he believed Bill failed to yield would help, but still wouldn’t prove negligence. If the police didn’t witness the accident, all they can prove is what they heard and saw.
Most States’ transportation codes dictate that one turning left yields to one going straight (which would further demonstrate a statutory duty that Bill breached). On the other hand, there might also be some negligence on Sally if she blindly entered the intersection when Bill was already out there turning. Remember, all drivers have a duty to act as reasonable vehicle operators. Just because a person has the legal right of way doesn’t mean they can recklessly assume others will yield it to them. There is also a statute about this in most States’ transportation codes (ie. . allow intersection to clear before entering). Assigning fault can be difficult if there is a lack of data.
What about all the other damages that were caused outside of Sally’s car; do you think Bill owes for all of that?. What if he recently has his steering worked on and there was some faulty workmanship or a defective part put on his vehicle which caused him to lose his steering in the accident? Would that change your mind about whether he was negligent for the mailbox damages and fences?
To determine fault/negligence, make sure there is a duty that was breached and that the breach was due to negligence of a driver. Once you know what duty was breached and what negligent action caused damages you can present your negligent theory to the at fault person’s insurance company and then continue to support your theory with facts if the insurance company disagrees with your assessment. This is how fault is determined, by interviewing drivers and investigating the evidence of the accident.
Did you know that the insurance policy says they only have to pay claims where their insured is legally liable? Without getting a judgment, it is impossible to prove that someone is legally liable. The only thing that makes a person legally liable IS a judgment. It’s a catch 22. In order to prove someone liable, you must do it in a court of law, AND the insurance company of the other person doesn’t technically owe you anything until you have a judgment from a court. Contact a professional if you need help evaluating a liability scenario, it will surely pay off.
I hope this helps! Information is always free at Petty Details, LLC!