Liability for Motor Vehicle Accidents
By Len Zandrow
NSCIA General Counsel
Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of serious personal injuries. Often, these accidents were not within the control of the injured party. This article outlines the main categories of other potential causes and describes key theories of liability that may apply in these circumstances.
Operation of the Vehicles Involved.
The mere fact that an accident happened, and that serious injuries occurred as a result, is not in and of itself an indication that anyone was negligent. In many instances, however, accidents are the result of the carelessness of one or more or persons. In single vehicle accidents, in which someone crashes into a roadside object, the operator involved may have been driving too fast for the conditions. In multiple vehicle accidents, one or more of the drivers involved may have been careless in the circumstances.
The fact that an operator was cited for a traffic violation in connection with the accident is usually not conclusive on the issue of his or her negligence, but this fact does constitute some evidence that the offender was not acting with reasonable care. In rear- end accidents, there is often a presumption that the operator who struck the other vehicle from behind was at fault. In some jurisdictions, apologies or expressions of sympathy ("I am sorry for the accident") may constitute admissions against the party making the statement, depending on the context and the particular words used.
If the injured party bringing a lawsuit was also an operator, disputes often arise whether that party may have been negligent too and whether his or her negligence contributed to cause the accident. In these instances, jurisdictions differ on what effect to give to the plaintiff's own negligence. Generally, depending on the amount and degree of the plaintiff's negligence, his or her recovery of damages may either be reduced by the percentage of comparative fault involved or barred altogether. In some jurisdictions, the courts apply a so-called "last clear chance" doctrine whereby the operator with the last opportunity to avoid the collision is presumed to be responsible.
Conditions with the Roadway or Accident Site.
Often, the conditions of the roadway or the vicinity of the accident may have contributed to the collision, and the parties responsible for these conditions may be held accountable. After the harsh winter that many of us have recently experienced, we need few reminders about how hazardous potholes, ice heaves and other highway surface defects can be.
There are often limitations, however, in suing the entities responsible for maintaining the condition of roadways or related signage and lighting. In cases where state or local governments may be target defendants, there are often restrictions on the dollar amount of recoveries against such parties, and stricter than normal notification deadlines and requirements may also apply.
The owners or occupiers of private property immediately adjacent to the premises of an accident may also be considered liable in certain circumstances if, for example, they negligently maintained overgrown shrubs or hung signage that dangerously obstructed an operator's view of an intersection.
Condition of Vehicles Involved.
The company that manufactured or sold the vehicle involved in an accident may also be potentially responsible in certain situations. Well-publicized product recalls have been in the news this past year. They remind us that, even though vehicles are typically safer to drive than a generation ago, product defects still exist and can cause injuries when vehicles breach their warranties or otherwise fail to function as intended.
In lawsuits against product manufacturers or retailers, engineering experts often need to be consulted and to ultimately testify about the vehicle's design characteristics and possible alternatives that would have been feasible and safer. Under a so-called "crashworthiness doctrine," manufacturers may also be responsible for the failure to design vehicles to reasonably withstand the foreseeable force of impacts and for the aggravation of injuries that could have reasonably been prevented during an accident. Service centers or repair shops may also be potential defendants in accident-related litigation, if there is evidence that they should have reasonably discovered and corrected a contributing defect when the vehicle was last undergoing repairs.
This is only a brief overview of the potential theories of liability that should be reviewed when assessing the merits of bringing a motor vehicle accident claim. In cases involving serious injuries, lawyers should be consulted to fully investigate and explain the details of the injured person's possible rights.