Each year in the United States over two million people are injured in car accidents – many of them seriously injured. If you or a loved one suffered a serious injury in a motor vehicle collision, be prepared to face not only emotional trauma, but also (perhaps) legal and financial issues that could result in litigation. The more you understand about the basics of car accident injury law, the better position you will be in to choose a competent personal injury lawyer.
Fault vs. No-Fault
About a dozen states implement a “no-fault” auto insurance system, while the rest operate on a “fault” basis. If you live in a “fault” state and you believe that the accident was the fault of another driver, you may file a personal injury claim against the other driver’s liability insurance policy or, if necessary, sue the other driver directly.
In a “no-fault” state, by contrast, there are legal limits on your ability to file a third-party insurance claim or a personal injury lawsuit. Instead, you are expected to look to your own insurance coverage (typically Personal Injury Protection insurance) to satisfy your claim. Even a “no-fault” state, however, will allow you to pursue liability directly against an at-fault driver or his insurance company if your injuries were serious enough or your medical expenses were high enough.
The vast majority of fault-based car accidents arise out of some form of negligence, although intentional misconduct (such as “road rage”) sometimes occurs. To win a negligence lawsuit, you must prove each of the following four elements:
- The at-fault driver owed you a duty of care. This element is relatively easy to establish – all drivers on public roads are expected to exercise “reasonable care” to avoid accidents. Similar reasoning applies to a pedestrian who causes an accident.
- The at-fault driver breached his duty of care to you. This element is where most of the fighting takes place in negligence lawsuits. If the defendant broke the law – by running a stop sign or by driving while intoxicated – your case for breach of duty will be strong. If the defendant’s conduct was more ambiguous – if, for example, you claim that the defendant was following your vehicle too closely – you may have your work cut out for you.
- The defendant’s breach of duty actually caused the accident. Even a drunk driver can avoid personal injury liability if he can establish that the accident would have occurred (and would have been equally serious) even if he had been sober.
- You suffered damages from the accident. Although your injuries will be sufficient to establish economic damages, you are required to prove every penny of them. Non-economic damages, however (such as compensation for pain and suffering) are so inherently vague that it is acceptable to estimate them.
Many car accidents are the fault of more than one party. If you were partly at fault for the accident, your state’s personal injury law will determine the outcome of your personal injury claim. In a few states, your claim will be dismissed if you were even slightly at fault. Other states simply assign you a percentage of fault and reduce your damages correspondingly. Most states apply some sort of statutory cutoff – your claim will be dismissed in some states if you were at least 50 percent at fault, for example.
Dealing With an Insurance Company
Insurance company executives are professional negotiators with vested interests in denying or reducing the amount of your claim. If the size of your claim is significant, you should retain a personal injury lawyer to do the negotiating on your behalf and file a lawsuit if the insurance company will not agree to fairly compensate you.