Fault and Liability for Motor Vehicle Accidents
The determination of fault in an automobile accident may or may not establish the person or party liable for payment of the damages or injuries. This fact is wholly the result of legislative lobbying over the years by automobile liability insurance carriers, who have devised and promoted various alternative strategies to the common law concept that persons at fault pay for the damages. Under such legislative schemes, common law recovery for damages has been totally or partially abolished.
In its place is a statutory reapportionment of liability for payment of damages. This arrangement does not mean that there is a statutory re-defining of actual "fault" per se. It simply means that many states have reapportioned the liability for fault, at least for purposes of automobile accident liability insurance. In all states, persons who fail to maintain liability insurance and who cause accidents may be personally sued, and their assets seized to satisfy any judgment against them.
In its purest form, "fault" for causing an accident is either created by statute or defined by common law. Common law recognizes four basic levels of fault:
- recklessness or wanton conduct
- intentional misconduct
- strict liability (irrespective of fault)
Negligence generally means careless or inadvertent conduct that results in harm or damage. It is a recurring factor in an aggregate majority of automobile accidents. It encompasses both active and passive forms of fault. That is to say, failing or omitting to do something (e.g., yielding a right-of-way) may result in liability just as much as actively doing something wrong (e.g., running a red light). Reckless or wanton conduct generally refers to a willful disregard for whether harm may result and/or a 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 an automobile accident have committed a "tort," a private wrong against another, not founded in "contract," and generally not constituting a crime. Those who have committed torts are referred to as "tortfeasors" under the law. Many automobile insurance policies continue to use the word "tortfeasor" to refer to people who are at least partly "at fault" or responsible for an accident.
There is rarely a question of fault when the tortfeasor has engaged in intentional or reckless misconduct, such as drunk driving. But when it comes to something less than intentional misconduct, e.g., general negligence, establishing fault for an automobile accident becomes more complex. Moreover, it is often the case that more than one driver or person is negligent and/or has played a role (even inadvertently) in the resulting accident. When there are multiple tortfeasors involved in an accident, state law dictates who must pay for both damage to property and injuries to the occupants of vehicles.
Motor Vehicle Statutory Violations
Every state has passed multiple laws which dictate 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. Thus, "fault" in an accident may be established merely by citing a statute that has been violated. A tortfeasor who is presumed to have caused an accident by virtue of a statutory violation must bear the burden, in any legal dispute, of proving that he or she was not negligent, or (in the alternative) that his or her negligence was not a proximate cause in the accident. The simplest way to apply the concept of proximate cause to an automobile accident is to ask whether it would be true that, "but for" the violation, the accident would not have occurred.