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The following article was authored by Elspeth G. Crawford.  Elspeth is an attorney at Adkins Law, P.L.L.C. located in Huntersville, NC. Her practice focuses on handling traffic offenses, DWI defense, family law matters, and estate planning. For more information, call (704) 274-5677 or visit www.huntersvillelawyer.com.

Auto accidents have been occurring since—well—since there have been cars on the road.  Take a look at the picture above, which occurred in 1918 in Toronto Canada.  Even back then personal injuries in autos were a problem.  So…what do you need to know about vehicle accidents as they relate to personal injury lawsuits?

If you’re involved in a car accident, there’s a chance that you might file a personal injury lawsuit or that one could be filed against you. In order to win a personal injury lawsuit involving a vehicular accident, the plaintiff must show three things:

  1. First, the plaintiff must show that he or she suffered actual harm. Usually, this will not be difficult. The plaintiff must simply identify their injuries.
  2. Second, the plaintiff must show that the defendant owed a duty of care but that the defendant breached this duty.
  3. Third, the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s breach of the duty of care was the cause of the plaintiff’s harm.

Duties of Care

Drivers are required to use that degree of care as would a reasonably prudent driver acting in similar circumstances. The details of the duty of care change slightly depending on what kind of vehicle is being driven, who is driving it, and whether or not the vehicle is commercial. However, many basic rules remain the same. Drivers have the duty to:

  • Observe speed limits.
  • Observe all traffic signals, such as stop signs and traffic lights.
  • Keep the vehicle under proper control.
  • Signal turns.
  • Keep a lookout for all potentially dangerous situations.

The specific duties of care required often vary depending on the situation. Deciding whether or not a duty of care has been violated is the responsibility of the trier of fact, which will be either the judge or jury depending on which type of trial has been chosen.

Causation

In cases where an injury is clearly caused by a driver’s negligence, showing causation is easy. In cases where the origin of injuries is not so clear, it can be more difficult. There are a number of tests courts used to determine injury. They vary depending on the state and the situation.

  • But-for test. The simplest test for determining causation asks whether the plaintiff’s injuries would have happened if it were not for the defendant’s misconduct. If the answer is yes, then causation exists.
  • Independently sufficient cause test. If courts cannot find causation by applying the but-for test, they may apply this test, which asks if the defendant’s misconduct was a necessary part of the chain of events that led to the injury. If, for example, a plaintiff swerves to avoid hitting a defendant’s car, which is parked in violation of a duty of care in the middle of the highway, and is hit by another car that is also being driven in violation of a duty of care, the court can use this test to hold the defendant parked car liable.
  • Practically Inseparable Injuries. If an injury was caused by the negligent actions of two independent drivers such that it is impossible to know exactly who caused exactly what injury, the court can hold both parties liable for the entire injury. Something else to take note of are potentially intervening causes that cut off the chain of causation and absolve the defendant of liability. An intervening cause of an injury is a cause that is highly unexpected and not foreseeable to someone exercising an ordinary duty of care. For example, if a defendant is driving his car and suddenly has a heart attack despite always having been a person of robust health, the defendant may be absolved of liability for any accident he may cause as a result of losing control of the car.

Contributory and Comparative Negligence

In order for a plaintiff to recover from a defendant in an automobile accident, the defendant must have acted negligently, that is, in violation of some duty of care. However, it is possible that the plaintiff also acted negligently and that the defendant is only partially, but not entirely, to blame for the accident. The doctrines of contributory and comparative negligence determine how to spread the blame when this occurs.

  • Contributory Negligence. In jurisdictions that follow a contributory negligence rule, the plaintiff will receive no damages if the court decides that they (the plaintiff) had acted negligently. Under this rule, for example, the plaintiff would receive no damages if he was hit by a negligently speeding driver while making an illegal U-turn.
  • Comparative Negligence.  In jurisdictions that follow a comparative negligence rule, courts look at the degrees to which the party’s negligence contributed to the accident and apportions damages accordingly. If the above example occurred in a comparative negligence jurisdiction, the plaintiff would still be awarded damages, but they would be reduced in the amount that his negligence caused the accident.

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