Fault and Liability for Motor Vehicle Accidents
Several different factors, not all of them obvious, determine who is liable for damages or injuries resulting from an automobile accident. For instance, a motorist is seriously injured when another motorist cuts in front of him after turning onto the street. However, he may be found liable if he was speeding or made an illegal lane change prior to the collision. The decision of who pays for damages or injuries in car accidents rests primarily on motor vehicle statutes, rather than the traditional, common law definition of "fault."
The automobile insurance industry lobbied state legislatures to base car accident liability more on motor vehicle statutes than on common law notions of fault. This has made it easier for insurers to challenge fault and liability when the other party in an accident has violated a traffic law, especially since liability insurance is required in all states. For example, a motorist lacking liability insurance may not be able to collect for damages even if the other motorist was at least partially negligent for a traffic accident.
This article explains the meaning of fault in automobile accidents with respect to common law and motor vehicle codes, since it differs from other types of claims. See FindLaw's Car Accident Liability section for additional articles and resources.
In its purest form, "fault" for causing an accident is either created by law or defined by common law. Common law recognizes four basic levels of fault:
- Recklessness or wanton conduct
- Intentional misconduct
- Strict liability (regardless of fault)
Negligence generally means careless or inadvertent conduct that results in harm or damage, which is quite common in automobile accidents. One can be negligent by failing to do something, such as not yielding the right-of-way to avoid an accident, as well as by actively doing something (such as running a red light). Reckless or wanton conduct refers to a willful disregard for the safety and welfare of others. Strict liability may be imposed, even in the absence of fault, for accidents involving certain defective products or extra hazardous activities (such as the transporting of explosive chemicals).
Under common law, individuals who have caused a car accident have committed a "tort," a private wrong against another (but not rising to the level of an intentional tort or crime). Those who have committed torts are referred to as "tortfeasors" under the law. Many automobile insurance policies use the word "tortfeasor" to refer to people who are at least partly at fault for an accident.
There is rarely a question of fault when a motorist has engaged in intentional or reckless misconduct, such as drunk driving. But when it comes to general negligence, as is with fender-benders or other routine accidents, establishing fault becomes more complex. More than one motorist may be found at least partially responsible. When this is the case (and there are multiple tortfeasors involved), state law dictates who must pay for damage to property and injuries to the involved parties.
Motor Vehicle Statutory Violations
Every state has passed multiple laws regulating the manner in which drivers must operate their vehicles upon public roads. Many of these statutes are actually codified versions of the common law, while others are the result of legislative initiative. The important point to remember is that a violation of any of these statutes generally creates a presumption of negligence as a matter of law. For instance, most states require motorcyclists to wear helmets. Failure to do so is an act of negligence, which may affect liability in an accident.
Thus, fault in an accident may be established merely by citing a statute that has been violated. A motorist presumed to have caused an accident by virtue of a statutory violation bears the burden of proving that this act of negligence was not a proximate cause of the injuries. For example, the motorcyclist who fails to wear a helmet suffers a serious brain injury after a motorist driving a car accidentally sideswipes him. The motorist may have been negligent, but so was the motorcyclist who didn't wear a helmet.
The simplest way to apply the concept of proximate cause (see Accident Fault FAQ) to an automobile accident is to ask whether it would be true that, "but for" the violation, the accident would not have occurred. With respect to the motorcyclist example, the helmet would not have prevented the accident but most likely would have limited the motorcyclist's injuries. Therefore, the motorist may not be held liable for the motorcyclist's brain injury.
What Should You Do Next?
This article has given you a basic understanding of what fault for an accident means under the law. If you think that someone was at fault in an accident you were involved in, you should have the facts of your claim reviewed by an attorney as soon as possible. A lawyer will be able to tell you whether someone was negligent or reckless in causing harm to you, and whether you might be able to collect damages to cover your losses.