Car accidents represent the majority of personal injury claims in the United States. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an automobile accident occurs in the U.S. every ten seconds and a person dies in such an accident every thirteen minutes. In 2005, the cost of car accidents in the U.S. exceeded 230 billion dollars. Most automobile accidents are caused by negligent driving and driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Defective vehicles and dangerous road conditions may also cause auto accidents.
Legal Consequences of Motor Vehicle Accidents
The precise legal consequences of automobile collisions depend on the nature and severity of the accident. A driver may face civil liability, criminal liability, or both. If an accident is minor, police may not report to the scene of the crash. Parties are required, however, to immediately exchange insurance and other contact information. The insurance companies may then determine who, if anyone, was at fault for the accident. Failure to stop at the scene of an accident may be classified as a "hit and run," and may subject the driver to criminal liability.
If a crash is more serious, law enforcement officers are likely to investigate the cause of the accident by interviewing witnesses and examining the scene of the collision. If a driver was grossly negligent, the state may choose to charge the driver with assault with a deadly weapon, manslaughter, murder or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. A driver may also be sued by the other parties involved in the accident, or their insurance companies, for personal injuries or money damages.
Suits arising from automobile accidents are generally grounded in negligence claims. A person is negligent if they fail to act as an ordinary, reasonable person under similar circumstances. Thus, a non-negligent driver uses reasonable care to avoid collisions. A jury generally determines whether a driver conformed with the "reasonable person" standard of care. A jury may consider the degree to which the driver adhered to traffic laws, whether the driver evaluated the weather and road conditions, and whether the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Failure to act as a "reasonable person" may result in liability if the negligence was both the actual and proximate cause of the victim's injuries. "Actual" cause is established if the victim's injuries would not have occurred but for the driver's negligence. A finding of proximate cause requires that the victim's injuries were the natural and probable result of the driver's negligence. If another person or event intervened and broke the chain of causation between the driver's actions and the victim's injuries, the driver may be relieved of liability.
Driving Under the Influence
A high percentage of fatal car crashes occur because drugs or alcohol have impaired one or more of the drivers. Dving under the influence (DUI) is a criminal offense and may be classified as a misdemeanor or a felony. States typically treat a DUI as a felony if the driver injures another party or if the driver had been previously convicted of a DUI. Penalties for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs include fines and/or incarceration in jail or prison.
Automobile parts, such as tires or brakes, which are defective may also cause car accidents. If a part is defective, persons who were injured because of the defect may sue the manufacturer or supplier of the part under the legal theory of products liability. Courts generally treat products liability as a strict liability tort, meaning that the court will hold the manufacturer or seller liable regardless of whether or not they acted negligently.