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Proving Fault in Accidents

What follows are some general rules that may help you in proving fault for an accident.

Although you would like it to be easy to prove fault for your accident, whether it be a slip and fall, car accident or medical malpractice, it is often not an easy task. In order for a person or entity to pay for your injuries, you must be able to prove who the responsible, or liable, party is. Sometimes, proving fault is as simple as using common sense. Other times, proving fault requires complex analysis.

Legal Liability

In most accidents, there is going to be at least one party that is liable for any injuries. The law uses a simple rule to determine liability: if a person involved in an accident was less careful than another, then the person who was less careful must often pay for (at least some of) the injuries and damages suffered by the more careful one.

There are some simple, common sense rules that can be easily applied to this concept of legal liability.

  • In order for a person to be liable to an injured person, there must be a duty that existed between the two parties. If, for example, the injured person was where s/he was not supposed to be and knew enough not to be there, then the injuring party may not be liable because s/he had no duty to keep the injured person safe.
  • If the injured person was also partly responsible for his/her injuries (for example, acting in a reckless manner), then their award for their personal injuries may be reduced by an amount equal to how much he or she contributed to their own accident.
  • If a person negligently injures another person while in the employ of another party, the employer may be responsible for the injuries sustained by the injured person.
  • If the injuries are sustained while on property that is poorly maintained and dangerous, the owner of the property may be liable because s/he was negligent in maintaining that property in a safe condition.
  • If the injury was sustained because of a poorly made or defective product, the maker and seller of the product may both liable because it is not the job of the injured person to determine where the defect was introduced.

More Than One Person at Fault

The issue of proving fault when more than one person could potentially be liable for a person's injuries is not that much more complicated. In fact, if more than one person is at fault, it can increase an injured person's chances of recovering full damages. In most states, if the injured party can prove that multiple parties were responsible for his or her injuries, then the law makes all the negligent people responsible for the entirety of the injured person's injuries. For example, if three careless drivers injure a pedestrian, the three drivers must decide among themselves how to apportion the damages.

There is one major advantage to the injured person regarding this rule -- he can choose who to collect the damages from. In the above example: after it is determined that the pedestrian is entitled to $20,000 for his injuries and pain and suffering, he can pick and choose who to collect this amount from. If only one of the drivers is insured, then the pedestrian will probably pick that driver, leaving the insurance company to figure out how to collect from the other two drivers. The insurance company must pay out the entire $20,000.

If You Were Partly Responsible -- Comparative Negligence

There are circumstances and situations where it is hard to say that another driver or person was entirely responsible for your injuries. In car accidents, often both the injured person and the other driver may be partly responsible. In these cases, a rule known as comparative negligence is used. Under this rule, blame is apportioned to both drivers in percentage amounts, and any awards are reduced accordingly.

To illustrate this point, consider the following example: Frank was involved in a car accident with Bill. Frank was injured in the wreck, and his injuries, as well as his pain and suffering, amounted to $10,000. However, there is some question as to whether Bill was entirely responsible for the accident. It is determined that Frank was driving too slowly on a busy road to be driving safely. Due to Frank's unsafe driving, it is determined that Frank is 20% responsible for the car accident. Because of this determination, Frank's award will be reduced by 20% to $8,000 ($10,000 -- 20% of $10,000 = $8,000).

Although this comparative fault calculation is mathematical in nature, there is no concrete formula that insurance companies use when determining fault. As with most things in life, determining the amount of blame that can be placed on you will probably come down to a negotiation. The claim adjuster for the insurance company may come to you with a percentage, and you can either accept their determination, or make an argument that their calculation is not correct.

State Laws Controlling Comparative Negligence

The comparative negligency information above comes with a few exceptions, depending upon the state you live in. States can be broken down into three categories when it comes to comparative negligence. In the first group are the states that allow you to recover for you injuries and damage no matter how much you contributed to an accident. In these states, even if you were 90% responsible for an accident, you are still allowed to recover. In the second category are states that prohibit an injured party from recovering if he or she was 50% or more responsible for an accident. In the last, and most restrictive, set of states, any type of recovery is barred if the injured party was at all responsible for the accident. In these states, an injured person will be prevented from recovering any damages if that person was even 1% responsible for an accident.

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