Liability for Damages Suffered in Car AccidentsPinellas County, where Clearwater is located, sees an average of 18,500 crashes every year, causing 10,904 injuries and 116 deaths. Regardless of whether victims of those accidents suffer minor injuries like broken bones, which generally heal quickly, to more serious injuries, like spinal cord damage or traumatic brain injury, which may have a serious and long-term impact on the victim's life, medical bills quickly mount following an accident. Regardless of who caused the car accident, you must live with the damage done to your body. That doesn't mean, however, that you alone bear liability for your medical bills and the other expenses associated with your injury. Working with an experienced personal injury lawyer can help identify who may be liable, and it generally increases the odds that the responsible individual will provide financial reimbursement. However, a good understanding of legal liability will help you evaluate your accident and determine who is liable for your injuries. Below we discuss the basics of legal liability.
Determining who is Liable for Car Accident DamagesThe concept of liability begins with defining "duty of care" and understanding how it impacts you and the others involved in your car accident. Generally, individuals owe a duty of care to others to not unreasonably cause them harm. To determine liability and duty of care in your car accident case, consider:
Who owed you a duty of care at the time of the accident?Every driver bears a duty of care to every other driver on the road. Drivers must follow the rules of the road, pay attention to other drivers, and keep their eyes open for pedestrians. They must make note of motorcycles, cyclists, and small vehicles, as well as larger ones. Drivers, however, are not the only ones responsible for other individuals on the road. Duty of care also extends to:
- Employers who have drivers on the road
- Government entities responsible for maintaining roads and surroundings
- Bars and restaurants that serve alcohol
- Vehicle manufacturers
- Garages and mechanics
Who violated a duty of care, resulting in the car accident?Irresponsible drivers do not cause every accident. In some cases, a driver may do everything correctly but still crash into another vehicle. In other cases, a driver may violate traffic laws or fail to pay attention to their surroundings, resulting in an accident. To determine who bears liability for your car accident, you must determine who violated his or her duty of care in the case of your accident. In some cases, this may include several individuals or entities, not just the driver.
Did that duty of care violation result in your car accident injuries?Imagine the following: a car ran a red light, just barely missing your vehicle. You were rear-ended, but uninjured. Your real injuries occurred when you twisted an ankle or knee walking away from the accident scene. While drivers bear responsibility for others on the road, they are not responsible for your mistakes or for injuries that are unrelated to the accident itself. To assign responsibility to a driver, you must prove that his or her negligence caused your injuries.
What were your specific car accident injuries?To assign liability, you must have specific injuries and/or damages. A destroyed vehicle or other property, personal injuries, and ongoing trauma all qualify; however, to prove liability, you must define those injuries. By answering these four key questions, you can better assess liability in your car accident case. The answers to those questions can help you and your lawyer move forward more effectively with your lawsuit or raise the odds that you'll be able to successfully collect damages from your car accident case. If you are unable to define who had a duty of care to you and who violated it at the time of the accident, working with a lawyer is a highly effective way to evaluate your accident and better understand who may bear liability for your injuries.
Who Bears Liability for Car Accident Damages?Many car accident cases involve liability that's easy to determine. When it's clear who caused an accident, assigning liability simplifies a case. On the other hand, in some cases, complications and extenuating circumstances may complicate the process. When determining liability for your car accident, consider these individuals who may bear partial or total responsibility for your injuries.
Another driverOftentimes, in a personal injury lawsuit, your strategy focuses on other drivers. In a two-car accident, you may focus on the driver of the other vehicle. In a multi-car accident, you may need to check the accident report or collaborate with witnesses to determine who made the error that caused your injuries. Other drivers may bear liability in a car accident case if they:
- Violated the rules of the road, including safety regulations. Violations may include running red lights, failing to stop at a stop sign, neglecting to yield, or changing lanes inappropriately or unsafely.
- Drove distracted. Texting and driving is the most common form of distracted driving, but driver distraction may also include eating or drinking behind the wheel, talking to someone else in the vehicle, chastising children, or even changing radio stations. Distracted driving substantially increases the risk of an accident, since it removes the driver's attention from the road and shifts it to something in the vehicle.
- Drove after drinking. Even one drink can substantially impact an individual's ability to drive safely. Driving while intoxicated, especially if the driver's BAC exceeds the legal limit, may bear stiff penalties. It can also increase a driver's liability in the event of an accident.
- Failed to pay appropriate attention. Many drivers insist following accidents with pedestrians, motorcycles, and bicycles that they "just never saw them." Drivers, however, bear full liability for paying attention to everything going on around them. Failure to note pedestrians, cyclists, and other drivers can cause serious accidents and injuries for which the driver is liable.
The driver's employerWas the driver on the clock with his or her employer at the time of the accident? In some cases, drivers may simply drive a short distance while on the clock to accomplish a task for their employer, such as picking up lunch or making a deposit at the bank. In other cases, drivers spend hours on the road every day as part of their jobs. Truckers, delivery drivers, and taxi or ridesharing drivers all spend the bulk of their days on the road. If these drivers cause an accident, their employer may bear partial liability. In this case, you may ask:
- Had the driver caused other accidents in the past? A driver with an extensive accident history known to the employer shouldn't continue employment as a driver. Drivers may, following an accident, take safety training courses to help improve their ability to drive safely; however, employers bear responsibility for putting safe, competent drivers on the road.
- Is the driver known to engage in unsafe driving behavior? Even if a driver hasn't caused accidents in the past, a driver who drinks and drives, especially on a regular basis, or who frequently drives distracted, may cause an accident at any time. Employers who are aware of unsafe driving behaviors must take appropriate steps to remove those drivers from the road or retrain them.
- Does the employer have unsafe regulations for their drivers? Some trucking companies, for example, may require drivers to spend too many hours behind the wheel without a break. Drivers may even falsify records in an effort to cover more miles or to make up miles spent sitting in traffic.
- Did the employer require the employee to drive in spite of the employee's reasonable objections? For example, a delivery driver who knows he or she wasn't sober, but who was called into work and forced to drive anyway, may not bear full responsibility. If the company forced the driver to work despite knowing that he or she was unable to do so safely, including threatening termination for noncompliance, the company may bear liability for any accident caused by the driver.
- Did the company fail to properly maintain its vehicles? Company vehicles should receive regular maintenance, including periodic checks to ensure that everything is functioning properly. A vehicle with a known problem should stay off the road until the problem has been addressed.
The entity or entities responsible for maintaining roads and sidewalksIn some cases, natural features of an area may make it difficult to avoid an accident. If overgrowth obscured a pedestrian or made it impossible for the driver to see another car turning, the local entities responsible for maintaining that area may bear partial liability for the accident. Note, however, that you may struggle to assign liability to a government entity, which may change the way you approach your case.
Bars and restaurantsBars and restaurants owe a high duty of care to their patrons and to others who must share the road with those patrons. In general, bars and restaurants must avoid over-serving customers, especially if they believe that those customers will be driving home. A bar or restaurant that continues to serve a known designated driver may bear partial liability for an accident. In this case, you should ask:
- Did the bar or restaurant staff know that the driver was inebriated?
- Did the bar or restaurant continue to serve the driver?
- Did the bar or restaurant staff know or suspect that the driver was planning to get behind the wheel?
Mechanics who worked on the vehicleEven the best driver may not avoid an accident in the event of a mechanical failure. If a vehicle part fails and causes an accident, the mechanic who has most recently worked on the vehicle may bear partial liability. Consider the following:
- Did the mechanic work on this specific part, then indicate that the vehicle was safe to drive? If so, and the part fails and causes an accident, the mechanic may bear partial liability.
- Did the mechanic work on a part near the one that failed in a way that would reasonably suggest that he or she should have noted potential future problems? Mechanics owe their clients a duty of care and should let car owners know about any potential hazards associated with driving the vehicle.
- Did the mechanic claim that he or she performed work that wasn't done on the vehicle? If a mechanic claimed that a problem was fixed, but actually left the vehicle unfixed, he or she may bear liability for the accident.
Vehicle manufacturersWhen manufacturers create a new vehicle, they often tell customers that the vehicle can safely navigate the road under normal driving conditions. If parts on that vehicle fail, manufacturers are responsible. In some cases, repeated failures can lead to mass recalls that bring in all vehicles of the make and model for repair. If a vehicle part failed and caused your accident, the vehicle manufacturer may be liable in a product liability claim. Consider the following:
- Is there a known issue or recall on the part that failed? If you should have known about the recall and the manufacturer has taken the necessary steps to notify the public about the issue, the liability may rest with the driver, not the manufacturer.
- Have several vehicles experienced similar failures without public notification? If so, the manufacturer may bear a higher level of liability.
- Did the vehicle's failure contribute to or fully cause the accident?