Most states follow a traditional tort liability system in which you can recover compensation when a motor vehicle accident caused by somebody else's misconduct or negligence injures you. Generally, all drivers of motor vehicles are required to carry insurance in case they cause an injury to somebody else. However, several states require automobile owners to opt in to "no-fault insurance," while others follow an "add-on" system.
No-fault insurance limits an accident victim's ability to seek compensation from other drivers involved in a car accident. The policyholder's insurance company will reimburse his or her economic damages without proof of fault, but in exchange, the driver may be restricted in the ability to sue the at-fault driver. He or she may only be able to recover noneconomic damages from the at-fault driver if the injuries are considered catastrophic or he or she has already incurred a certain sum in medical bills. A few states allow residents to choose between a traditional tort system and a no-fault system.
Motor vehicle accident cases are those involving all types of transportation, including:
- Bicycle Accidents
- Car Accidents
- Truck Accidents
- Motorcycle Accidents
- ATV Accidents
- Train Accidents
- Taxi Cab Accidents
- Public Transportation Accidents
- Boating Accidents
- Pedestrian Accidents
Proving Negligence After a Vehicle Accident
In states that follow traditional tort liability principles, a plaintiff is only be able to recover from someone if he or she can show that person's fault. Most cases turn on proving negligence, which requires a plaintiff to prove the defendant's duty to the plaintiff, the defendant's breach of duty, actual and proximate causation, and actual damages.
Generally, all drivers on the road (and boaters on the water) owe a duty of care to other drivers and pedestrians. This duty of care is to drive as a reasonable person would in order to avoid foreseeable injuries to others. Breaches of duty would include, for example, driving under the influence of alcohol, talking or texting on the phone while driving, driving while fatigued, applying makeup while driving, or doing any other activity that takes a person's attention away from the road or violates a traffic rule. Actual causation means that the accident would not have happened if not for the breach, and proximate causation means that the accident was a foreseeable result of the breach.
If you are involved in a motor vehicle accident, you should obtain the other party's contact and insurance information. You should also take down the contact information of any witnesses to the accident and give this information to your lawyer or insurance company. You may believe the accident was your fault, but it is important not to admit that either to the other driver, witnesses, or to a representative of the other driver's insurance company.
Defenses to Motor Vehicle Accident Cases
There are many defenses available if somebody sues you for personal injuries in a motor vehicle collision case. Different states follow the doctrines of pure comparative negligence, modified comparative negligence, or contributory negligence. A defendant can use the doctrine applicable to his or her state in order to have the plaintiff's recovery reduced by his or her percentage of fault or barred completely.
In states that follow pure comparative negligence, such as California, a plaintiff's recovery is reduced in proportion to his or her degree of fault, even if he or she was 99% responsible. Suppose for example, that a truck driver cuts off a fatigued driver who is weaving between cars, and as a result the fatigued driver crashes and sustains multiple broken bones, lacerations, and a herniated disc. The fatigued driver may sue the truck driver, who may raise the defense of comparative negligence. The jury will apportion fault between the truck driver and the fatigued driver. If the total damages are $100,000, and the truck driver is 65% at fault and the fatigued driver is 35% at fault, the fatigued driver will be able to recover $65,000 from the truck driver.
In states that follow modified comparative negligence, a plaintiff's recovery is reduced in proportion to his or her degree of fault—up to a point. Twenty-one states, including Massachusetts and Wisconsin, follow the 51% bar rule. This rule prohibits an injured plaintiff from recovering if he or she is 51% or more at fault. If he or she is 50% or less at fault, the recovery award is reduced by that percentage. Twelve states, including Georgia and Maine, follow the 50% bar rule. This rule means an injured person cannot recover if he or she is 50% or more at fault. If a plaintiff is 49% or less at fault, he or she can recover, but the recovery is reduced by his or her percentage of fault.
In contributory negligence states, a plaintiff is prohibited from recovering even if he or she is determined to be only 1% at fault. In those states, such as Maryland, it can be particularly difficult to recover damages after a motor vehicle accident.