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Negligence: Background

Negligence is a term used in personal injury law. As motorists drive on the roads, they owe a "duty of care" to others. This means drivers should exercise reasonable care and abide by traffic laws, such as stopping at a red light or not speeding, to prevent car accidents.

When motorists fail to observe this duty, negligent driving occurs. A car crash resulting from a driver's failure to stop at a red light or from speeding can lead to medical bills, property damage, and sometimes even wrongful death. The concept of negligence is important for any injured party considering a car accident claim.

Basics of Negligence in Car Accidents

Every motor vehicle accident is unique. However, the foundational principle remains. If one driver is "at fault" because they didn't exercise reasonable care, they could be held liable. The at-fault driver's insurance company often steps in to assess property damage and medical expenses. However, insurance claims aren't always straightforward.

For a successful negligence claim in a car accident case, the injured person must prove:

  • The at-fault driver owed them a duty of care.
  • The driver breached this duty (e.g., by breaking traffic laws).
  • This breach caused the car accident.
  • The accident led to real damages, such as medical treatment costs.

Types of Negligence

The intricacies of negligence can vary based on the jurisdiction. Two related doctrines to be aware of are contributory negligence and comparative negligence.

Contributory Negligence

In states with contributory negligence rules, an injured party cannot collect damages if they are even slightly at fault. This means that if you're found to be 1% responsible for a motor vehicle accident in such jurisdictions, your injury claims could be denied.

Example of Contributory Negligence

Sarah was driving through Virginia, one of the states that adheres to the contributory negligence rule. As she approached an intersection, the traffic light was green in her favor. Just as she was crossing, John, who was trying to beat the red light from the perpendicular road, sped up and entered the intersection. This led to a collision between their cars.

Both Sarah and John suffered injuries and damage to their vehicles. A witness at the scene, however, mentioned to the police that Sarah appeared to be slightly above the speed limit when she entered the intersection.

During the investigation, it was largely determined that John was primarily at fault for trying to beat the red light. However, because Sarah was found to be speeding and thus potentially 1% at fault for the accident, under Virginia's contributory negligence rule she might be barred from recovering any damages from John. This is true even though he was the main party at fault. In such jurisdictions, even a slight error on the part of one driver can have significant implications when seeking compensation for injuries and damages.

Comparative Negligence

Comparative negligence, however, reduces the amount of compensation based on the injured party's percentage of fault. For example, if you were 30% responsible, you'd receive 70% of the total damages. You can still recover, but your recovery might be reduced if you were partially at fault.

Example of Comparative Negligence

Let's consider a scenario in California, a state that follows the pure comparative negligence system.

Lucas was driving to work one morning. He was listening to his favorite podcast, slightly distracted. As he approached an intersection, he slowed down. However, he didn't come to a full stop at the stop sign. At the same moment, Mia, coming from the perpendicular road, was changing the song on her car's music system and didn't notice Lucas. They both collided in the intersection.

An investigation found that Mia had the right of way since Lucas had a stop sign and she didn't. However, Mia's distraction also played a role in her inability to react in time to avoid the collision.

After reviewing the facts, the court determined that Lucas was 70% at fault for not stopping at the stop sign. Mia was 30% at fault for being distracted. If Mia's total damages from the accident amounted to $100,000, under the pure comparative negligence rule, her compensation would be reduced by her degree of fault.

Therefore, Mia would receive 70% of the $100,000, which is $70,000, instead of the full amount. This is because she was 30% responsible for the accident.

The Role of Insurance Companies

After an auto accident, you should let your insurance company know right away. One of the first things they will do is investigate to determine who was at fault. Their goal is to understand which driver or drivers were negligent and thereby contributed to the incident.

The insurance company will also assess the extent of property damage. This includes examining the damage to vehicles, infrastructure, or any other property involved. The objective is to ascertain the cost of repair or replacement.

The police report is a crucial document in the claims process. When law enforcement is called to an accident scene, they compile a report detailing:

  • The facts as observed
  • Statements from witnesses
  • Initial assessment of fault

Insurance companies heavily rely on this report. It offers an impartial account of the incident. It can contain vital information that aids in the determination of liability.

Evaluating Medical Treatment

Apart from property damage, the insurance company will also scrutinize the medical treatment received by the claimant. They'll review:

Their objective is to verify the legitimacy of the medical claims. For instance, they may question whether certain treatments were necessary or if the duration of hospitalization was warranted.


Insurance companies are businesses with the goal of minimizing costs. Therefore, they may search for reasons to reduce the amount of compensation owed to a claimant. They might argue that the claimant was partially at fault or that some medical treatments weren't necessary. Other times, they may rely on technicalities in the insurance policy or question the severity of the injuries in relation to the accident.

Given the complexities of dealing with insurance companies, having a car accident lawyer becomes indispensable. They bring understanding about:

  • The nuances of car accident cases
  • The tactics used by insurance companies
  • The rights of accident victims

A car accident lawyer will provide legal advice tailored to the specifics of your case. They'll ensure that you are adequately represented, help gather evidence to strengthen your claim, negotiate with the insurance company, and, if necessary, take the case to court. Their goal is to ensure that you receive the rightful compensation you deserve and aren't unfairly taken advantage of during the claim process.

Seeking Legal Assistance

After a car accident, consult a personal injury attorney. These professionals can guide accident victims through the hoops of their personal injury case, from understanding insurance policy details to representing you in a personal injury lawsuit.

From a legal perspective, car crash cases can be complex. Whether you're dealing with whiplash or considering a wrongful death lawsuit, understanding the nuances of negligence can help frame your approach.

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