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Car Accident Litigation


Despite significant safety improvements in automobile and in the design of roads, car accidents remain quite common. It is likely that any given person will be involved in at least one serious automobile accident during his or her lifetime. This article explores when a car accident may result in litigation.

If you are involved in a car accident, you may benefit from reviewing these suggestions about what to do after a car accident, and from consulting a personal injury lawyer.

Litigation After Car Accidents

Not every car accident will result in litigation. Where nobody is injured or injuries are minor, it may be possible to resolve all claims for medical care and property damage directly with the drivers' car insurance companies. The greater the damage or injury that results from a car accident, the more likely it is that a lawsuit will follow.

Causes of Car Accidents

There are a wide variety of possible causes for automobile accidents, including:

Driver Error - The most common cause of car accidents is driver error. Common errors which contribute to accidents include failure to yield the right of way, following too closely, driving at excessive speeds, unsafe passing, and disregard of traffic control devices.

Distractions - When the driver's attention becomes diverted from the road, the chances of an accident increase. Distractions may occur from outside of the car, such as when something at the side of the road draws a driver's attention. Distractions also occur inside cars, such as where the driver attempts to read or put on makeup while driving, change CD's in the CD player, dials a cellular phone, or attempts to parent an upset or unruly child.

Intoxication - Motorists whose ability to drive is impaired as a result of the consumption of alcohol or drugs are more likely to cause car accidents.

Bad Weather - Sometimes, bad weather conditions will contribute to an accident by interfering with visibility, diminishing traction on the road surface, or otherwise making it more difficult to drive a car. A driver should take the effects of the weather, such as strong cross-winds or slippery roads, into consideration when driving. Sometimes the weather will cause an unexpected hazard, such as black ice or flash flooding, which may not be detected by a driver until it is too late to avoid the hazard.

Road Design - A poorly designed roadway, intersection, or means of controlling traffic can at times cause or contribute to an accident. Poorly placed and poorly designed road signs or barriers can cause unnecessary injury when vehicles collide with them. At times, such defects will result in liability by the governmental agency responsible for the design and maintenance of the roadway, although governmental immunity may apply.

Road Conditions - The conditions of a roadway can be bad for a number of reasons, including weather, poor design or maintenance, or the presence of objects or debris on the roadway. Such factors can cause or contribute to accidents.

Vehicle Defects - At times an accident will result from a defect with a driver's vehicle, such as a tire blowout, brake failure, or other mechanical failure. Sometimes the injuries suffered in an accident will be made worse by a design or manufacturing defect with a vehicle, such as a design defect which makes an SUV more susceptible to rolling over in an accident or a gas tank more likely to ignite in a collision, or a manufacturing defect which causes a seatbelt to fail or an airbag to deploy improperly.

Most automobile accident litigation involves two vehicles, with a driver or passenger from the first vehicle claiming that the driver of the second vehicle caused the accident through negligent driving. Sometimes the litigation will involve the driver and passenger of a single vehicle, with the passenger claiming injury as a result of the driver's negligence. At times, litigation will be against a governmental agency which is alleged to have failed to properly design or maintain a roadway or intersection. Car accident litigation may also include a product liability claim against the manufacturer of a vehicle or part of a vehicle, alleging a design or manufacturing defect which contributed to the accident. A claim might also arise against a mechanic or service center whose work left a vehicle in a hazardous condition.

Special Issues

Special issues can arise in automobile litigation which make it more difficult to litigate a car accident claim, which make additional parties potentially liable for injuries, or which must be considered during the course of litigating a case. Special issues arising from the accident itself include:

Hit-and-Run Accidents: Where the driver who causes an accident fails to stop at the accident scene, it may be difficult for the victim of the accident to later identify the at-fault driver so as to bring a lawsuit.

Car-Pedestrian Accidents: Where a motor vehicle collides with a pedestrian, the pedestrian will often suffer catastrophic injury. Pedestrians often have difficulty making claims against drivers, with accidents frequently attributed to the conduct of the pedestrian.

Car-Motorcycle Accidents: Motorcycle drivers are susceptible to serious injury, even in collisions which would be relatively minor had they occurred between cars. Some suggest that motorcyclists suffer from a predisposition by juries to blame them for causing an accident, even where the driver of a car was clearly negligent.

Car-Bicycle Accidents: Bicyclists are vulnerable to serious injury when hit by cars, and are aslo susceptible to having drivers open car doors in front of them - a hazard which can cause them to be caterpaulted over the car door in a collision. Drivers often report that they did not see the bicyclist until after the collision, or that they misjudged the bicyclist's speed. Some bicyclists engage in very hazardous actions, such as ignoring traffic signals or riding on the wrong side of the road, making an accident much more likely. The most severe and lasting injuries to bicyclists tend to be head injuries, so helmet use is encouraged.

Bus Accidents: Bus accidents can be quite serious, given the size and mass of a typical bus, and the fact that passengers are usually unrestrained. Special issues can arise in accidents involving school buses, and in the context of loading and unloading passengers.

Semi Truck / Tractor-Trailer Accidents: The drivers of "big rigs" are subject to state and federal regulation, governing how many hours a day they can drive, how much sleep they are to get each night, and the condition and maintenance of their trucks. Drivers typically get paid by the mile driven, and thus have a strong incentive to ignore rules which limit their driving time. Obviously, when a semi truck causes an accident, the consequences to any smaller vehicle and its passengers can be devastating.

After-Market Vehicle Modifications: Where a vehicle has after-market modifications, such as being raised or lowered, having powerful or tinted headlights or foglights intalled, or window tinting, those modifications may affect both the safety of the vehicle for its occupants and the hazard posed by the vehicle to other drivers.

Accidents Caused by Road Debris: Where road debris causes an accident, whether in the form of objects or parts which have fallen off of vehicles, or debris that is kicked up from the roadway and collides with another vehicle, it can often be difficult to determine who was at fault for the presence of the debris on the road. States may also limit liability based upon how long the debris was on the road.

Special issues which may affect liability include:

Governmental Immunity: States may limit an injury victim's ability to sue when the driver of the vehicle that causes an accident is a governmental employee who is working at the time of the accident, or where the accident involves a government-owned vehicle.

Owner Liability: Where the driver of a vehicle has the owner's permission to operate that vehicle, many jurisdictions will hold the owner jointly liable for injuries caused by the driver's negligent operation of the vehicle.

Employer Liability: Where an employee is driving a vehicle "on the job", or as the lawyers might say "within the course and scope of employment", the employer may be jointly liable for injuries caused by the employee's negligent driving conduct.

Cellular Phone Usage: In a number of states, courts are increasingly receptive to the argument that where a driver who causes an accident is talking on a cellular phone, the call was work-related, and the driver's employer expects employees to handle work-related phone calls while driving, the employer may share liability for an accident caused by the employee.

Insurance Coverage

The insurance problems car accident victims have with insurance coverage typically fall into three categories:

Uninsured Driver - Where the at-fault driver is uninsured, it can be difficult for a person who is injured in a car accident to obtain appropriate compensation. Where the injured person is uninsured, states are increasingly modifying their laws to limit the uninsured accident victim's right to sue for pain and suffering damages. Many drivers carry "uninsured motorist coverage" through their own automobile insurance policies, so that they have a source of compensation in the event that the other driver fails to carry insurance or cannot be identified.

Underinsured Driver - Similar to the uninsured driver, some drivers carry inadequate insurance coverage, often at the minimum level required by state law. Many states have very low insurance requirements, which unfortunately means that some of the worst drivers on the road carry inadequate coverage due to the high cost of insurance which results from their bad driving records. Some carinsurance companies offer underinsured motorist coverage, so drivers can protect themselves in the event that they are in an accident caused by somebody who carries inadequate coverage.

Insurance Company Bad Faith - When people make claims with their insurance companies, they sometimes run into difficulty with the insurance company's refusal to negotiate the claim fairly. For example, an insurance company may refuse to offer fair value for a "totaled" car. In "no fault" states, where drivers insure for their own accident-related medical care, it can involve the improper denial of coverage or reimbursement by the insurance company.

Statute of Limitations

Anybody who is considering bringing a legal claim as a result of a car accident should note that their ability to pursue their claim will be limited by the statute of limitations of the jurisdiction where the accident occurred.