Automobile Accident Law
An automobile accident can give rise to various claims for injuries sustained in the accident. Like in most cases of personal injury resulting from the conduct of private parties, the dispute is resolved through an application of the law of torts. In automobile accidents, one of the first questions is whether either of the drivers were negligent. After the negligence determination is made, there must be a causal connection between the negligent conduct and the harm. Finally, the apportionment of the fault for the harm must be made.
The first problem in any automobile accident is determine if one or more of the drivers was negligent. Negligence is the breach of the duty of care, which is in turn how a reasonable person would have acted under the circumstances. In some circumstances certain conduct can almost always considered unreasonable, and driving is one of those circumstances. While the specific rules vary from state to state, conduct like tailgating, crossing an intersection without constantly looking in both directions, or failure to stop, look, and listen at a railroad crossing almost always creates an inference of negligence. It is worth noting that this kind of conduct is not dispositive of negligence, but it does create a strong inference thereof.
Some kinds of conduct is always considered negligent. Generally speaking, when a statute prohibits conduct it can be considered to be negligent to engage in that conduct. This is referred to as per se negligence. For instance, a person will be considered per se negligent by driving over the speed limit. Because of the per se negligence doctrine—and certain rules of evidence—a person who admits to conduct that is per se negligent after an accident is highly likely to be found, at the very least, comparatively negligent or mostly at fault for the auto accident.
A driver may also be found negligent when the accident is of a character that it can only be explained by negligence. This is the Res Ipsa Loquitor doctrine– Latin for “the thing speaks for itself.” An example of Res Ipsa negligence is a car being crashed into a living room; there is no reasonable conduct that results in such a circumstance. A typical automobile accident, such as a minor fender-bender, is unlikely to be of a type where Res Ipsa negligence can be invoked by the plaintiff.
Once the presence or absence of negligence in the drivers has been established, a claimant must next prove that the negligence caused the harm. It is possible that a negligent driver is not the cause of an injury. Proving causation is a two step process. First, the negligence must be the cause-in-fact, and the direct and actual cause of the harm. A cause-in-fact is the but-for cause, i.e. were it not for the actor’s conduct the harm would not have occurred. The direct and actual cause, or proximate cause, is the question of whether the harm was a foreseeable risk arising from the conduct of the negligent actor.
If a person is found to be the cause of the harm, then they are liable. It is important to note there are two types of fault. The first type of fault is liability, i.e. whether the negligent actor caused the harm. The second fault is how much of the harm belongs to the negligent actor. The fault analyses can become difficult when there is more than one potentially causal factor in the harm. If two negligent actors jointly cause harm to a third person they are each 100% liable for the harm, and they are jointly responsible for the amount of harm. In other words, they are both to blame, and each owes a portion of the whole amount of damages. This kind of assignment of blame becomes more difficult with each added actor. For instance, it would be difficult to assign fault to one driver in the harms arising from a twenty car pile-up. It would be incredibly difficult to tell exactly which impact caused what particular harm.